Music Bummys: Best Albums of 2015

Music Bummys: Best Albums of 2015

Top Ten Albums

albums0110. Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit: It’s fitting that the two best rock albums of the year were fronted by a women. In a year that found our culture confronting its darker, oft-hid demons, and in a genre with a long, misogynistic history, Courtney Barnett was the rock and roll ambassador we needed. Her stream-of-consciousness lyrics and her punk aesthetic fit right in next to the lexicon of iconoclasts like Dylan and Springsteen, and it’s about time a woman in rock got the kind of respect she deserves.

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9. The Tallest Man on Earth, Dark Bird Is Home: Dark Bird is Matsson’s most personal album, recorded in the wake of his divorce. I suppose that makes Dark Bird a breakup album, and the lyrics do suggest a previously unexplored depth of mournfulness characteristic of the classic breakup albums, while the music explores sound textures beyond his trademark acoustic guitar. It’s almost as if allowing himself room to work outside his guitar gave him the space to open himself up to us.

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8. Ben Rector, Brand New: Listening to this modern piano man’s most recent album, which depends more heavily on storytelling than past albums, I thought of James Taylor. Sure, Taylor was more of a guitar guy, but Brand New is chock full of the kinds of diary details that have been Taylor’s bread and butter on his best songs. It’s this brand new commitment to personal authenticity that makes Brand New Rector’s best album since 2008’s Songs That Duke Wrote.

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7. John Moreland, High on Tulsa Heat: Oklahoma has enjoyed an embarrassment of riches in the singer-songwriter department of late, what with the last year seeing banner albums from Parker Millsap, Ben Rector, and Samantha Crain, the last of which could have easily replaced High on Tulsa Heat at this level without any complaint from me. But Moreland gets the top spot for me because of his uncanny ability to tie his heartbreak and longing to specific places in my home state. I’m surely biased, but people from all states can appreciate the catch in his voice and his way with a phrase.

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6. David Ramirez, Fables: On past albums and EPs, Ramirez has never been afraid of making his unique voice heard, calling out industry fakery and political correctness. Ramirez’s most recent album is his most personal yet and has the most to say about love and commitment from front to back. But, true to the troubadour sensibility, even while Ramirez is pouring his heart out, he never fails to save some space for convicting protests.

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5. Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color: Courtney Barnett’s dominance of the indie rock world last year was total and complete, and Brittany Howard’s dominance of mainstream rock was just as potent. Though Howard downplays the significance of her race in the making of her art, it’s hard to overstate how good it feels to see an African-American woman reclaim blues rock in such a big way. After the comfortable surf rock of Boys & Girls, Sound & Color’s epic, psychedelic sweep from song to song is quite the statement.

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4. Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell: Written as he struggled to cope with his mother’s death and with his ensuing drug use and alcohol abuse, Carrie & Lowell bears none of Stevens’s past affectations and is better for it. You get the impression you’re finally getting the real Sufjan. There are several points on the album that have me near tears every time- a small price to pay to experience such an intimate album.

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3. Phil Cook, Southland Mission: In the tradition of some of the best roots rock music, Phil Cook’s second album went largely unnoticed. That’s a shame for the Megafaun member, because this is the kind of effortless folk music that deserves a platform. Some of the songs get at middle-class angst, but ultimately Cook is a master of celebrating life for what it is.

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2. Leon Bridges, Coming Home: Sam Cooke is not a name that it is easy to evoke. He was a classic soul singer whose aesthetic was as much about devotion to Jesus as it was about his voice’s smoothness. I can’t think of a single artist that has even come close to matching the velvet in his voice, the devoutness of his delivery. But Bridges, with only one album to his name, does deserve the comparison. His songs are new hymns, written with the clear idea that Jesus is master, intoned with the clear idea that beauty is the best form of worship.

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1. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly: Some albums are undeniable classics before they’ve even aged a year. This one was a classic before it had even aged a month. A conglomeration of black history, black culture, and black power, To Pimp a Butterfly was bigger than 2015. In one record, Kendrick Lamar painstakingly mapped out the heart of the everyman in America- only unlike virtually every other use of that term ever, this “everyman” was black. And TPAB was also perfect for 2015, the year that cultural awareness of black oppression finally became something everyone (including white people) in America had to face. Some chose to continue to pretend it does not exist while getting angry at black people for deciding to talk about it. Others, like me, were overwhelmed with their own implicit role in making the lives of my black brothers difficult. But like any facet of the Black Lives Matter movement, TPAB didn’t need your approval or your permission to have an impact. Some works of art, and some movements, contain too much truth to be denied. Kendrick spoke, we couldn’t help but listen, and the world couldn’t help but change.

Another Fifteen

Chris Stapleton, Traveller
Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment, Surf
Gungor, One Wild Life: Soul
Janet Jackson, Unbreakable
Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free
Jimmy Needham, Vice & Virtue
Justin Bieber, Purpose
Kacey Musgraves, Pageant Material
KaiL Baxley, A Light That Never Dies
Kamasi Washington, The Epic
One Direction, Made in the A.M.
Sam Outlaw, Angeleno
Samantha Crain, Under Branch and Thorn and Tree
Sara Groves, Floodplain
The Weeknd, Beauty Behind the Madness

Past Top Tens

2014

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

2013

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

2012

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

2011

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

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

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Music Bummys: Best Songs of 2015

Music Bummys: Best Songs of 2015

Top Twenty-Five: 25-11

songs0125. Ben Rector, “Paris”: I vividly remember falling in love with my wife in Norman, Oklahoma, but when I listen to this song, I momentarily believe every second of it happened in France.

 

songs0224. Nao, “Apple Cherry”: I don’t have Apple Music, so I haven’t heard Blonde yet, but it’s hard to fathom anything on it being smoother or sexier than this.

 

songs0323. Kendrick Lamar, “King Kunta”: Kendrick doesn’t do diss tracks, he does atomic bombs.

 

1545closed_GLUE22. John Moreland, “Cleveland County Blues”: There’s a lot of great folk music being made right now, but this is an Oklahoma-centric anthem that expresses what heartbreak is like out here in flyover country.

 

songs0521. Alabama Shakes, “Don’t Wanna Fight”: The Shakes took a leap in their newest album, and the psych-blues on this single are the perfect example of their newfound looseness.

 

songs0620. Sara Groves, “I Feel the Love Between Us”: Groves is an all-timer at this point, and this love song to marriage fits into her canon easily.

 

songs0719. Drake, “Hotline Bling”: If earworms are an art form, then “Hotline Bling” is its Campbell’s Soup Can: distilled down to its purest form, and walking the fine line between brilliant and stupid.

 

songs0818. Jason Isbell, “If It Takes a Lifetime”: Sobriety sounds downright impossible on the highlight from Isbell’s Something More Than Free, but he also makes it sound like the only option.

 

songs0117. Ben Rector, “Fear”: It still feels new to hear Ben Rector’s single “Brand New” on the radio, but I feel like I’ve had “Fear” with me my whole life.

 

songs0916. Shura, “2Shy”: A lot of pop songs take a direct approach to love and sex, but “2Shy” is the rare song that gets the subtle what-ifs exactly right.

 

songs1015. Tame Impala, “‘Cause I’m a Man”: Residing somewhere between AM and FM radio, “‘Cause I’m a Man” has nothing to say about sexiness or coolness, and everything to say about stumbling through life like a drunk.

 

songs1114. Chance the Rapper, “Somewhere in Paradise (feat. Jeremih)”: The first real hint of the gospel heights he would reach on Coloring Book, “Somewhere” is Chance’s freedom song, so it’s ours too.

 

songs1213. Kendrick Lamar, “The Blacker the Berry”: TPAB is Kendrick grappling with what it means to be black in America in 2015, and “Blacker” is its thesis.

 

songs1312. The Tallest Man on Earth, “Sagres”: I love Kristian Matsson’s music for its simplicity, but “Sagres”, a lament for the emptiness that follows a broken relationship, benefits from the space that his expanded production creates.

 

songs1411. Kacey Musgraves, “Biscuits”: Country music thrives on wordplay, and with couplets like “Mind your own biscuits / And life will be gravy”, Musgraves is clearly the queen of the genre.

 

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10. Miguel, “Coffee (F***ing) (feat. Wale)”: I think it’s important to keep the mystery and spontaneity alive in relationships. But “Coffee” makes the passionate case that sex should be as regular as your morning coffee. Feel free to argue with him, but he seems pretty insistent here.

 

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9. Jack Ü, “Where Are Ü Now (with Justin Bieber)”: Two years ago I would have told you I hated EDM. I would have told you it was cold and emotionless, that it lent itself to drug use, and I would have saved special derision for Skrillex. And now his song with Diplo and Justin Bieber is one of my favorite songs, so you might as well not listen to anything I’m saying now because it’ll soon be obsolete.

 

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8. Rihanna and Kanye West and Paul McCartney, “FourFiveSeconds”: This was such a left turn from everyone involved that people didn’t seem to know what to do with it. The proper response was total and complete submission to its effortless soul. Paul McCartney’s written countless hits, and Rihanna and Kanye have done big things in 2016, and yet this is the song from all of them that I keep going back to the most.

 

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7. Justin Bieber, “Love Yourself”: This is a mean-spirited song disguised as a ballad which is a sort of cruel deception, but I don’t care. It’s essentially a diss track, a kiss-off with a perfectly nonchalant delivery and some truly unforgettable lines. We know Ed Sheeran wrote it but if Biebs didn’t contribute the line about his mom not liking Selena (and she likes everyone), I’ll be crushed.

 

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6. Alessia Cara, “Here”: Nothing was more satisfying than seeing this song, which is about a loner hating a party, turn into a party song. It’s like comic book movies becoming mainstream, or Kawhi Leonard outplaying LeBron in the 2014 Finals. Sometimes the popular kids lose, and the outcasts get a chance to shine.

 

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5. Kendrick Lamar, “Alright”: If this was a list of the most important songs of the year, “Alright” would be at the top. Shoot, it may be the most important song of the century, let alone 2015. But this is my list of my favorite songs, so it’ll have to settle for a lowly #5. That being said, no song on this list gets me as pumped up, especially in the face of all that’s happening in the world. I know it’s not a song that was written for me or people like me, but I feel such compassion for the black community that I can’t help but sing along.

 

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4. Blood Orange, “Sandra’s Smile”: Dev Hynes’s Freetown Sound from earlier this year is the closest thing we’ve had in the 21st century to What’s Going On. I was disappointed to find that he hadn’t included last year’s “Sandra’s Smile”, an elegy in honor of Sandra Bland, the 28-year-old black woman found hanged in a Waller County, TX, jail cell. But upon reflection, “Sandra’s Smile” belongs on its own. It’s a beautiful song and would fit right in with the tone of Freetown. But as a statement it stands alone, and should, so that history remembers Sandra Bland, and the thirst for justice her death aroused.

 

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3. Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment, “Sunday Candy”: Another, less Chance-centric example of his contagious joy in song form. Off of Surf, the debut album of Chance’s musical collective in Chicago, “Sunday Candy” is an explosion of pleasure. It starts with the playful opening piano and Chance’s soft rapping. Then it balloons into a gospel choir and a full-blown jazz orchestra. We know from Coloring Book that Chance and Donnie Trumpet know how to pack their songs with joy, but nothing they’ve made does this as effortlessly as “Sunday Candy”.

 

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2. Sufjan Stevens, “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”: This song may be the polar opposite of “Sunday Candy”. Where “Sunday” is overflowing with joy, “No Shade” is soaked in suffering. Written after Stevens’s struggle to cope with the death of his mother, the song expresses his inability to find comfort anywhere. As someone who has professed to be Christian and whom many assume is Christian, Stevens showed all his cards with this song. If Christ is supposed to give me peace or freedom or joy, why don’t I feel those things?

 

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1. Leon Bridges, “River”: I tend to be skeptical of comparisons to all-time legends like Sam Cooke, but Leon Bridges earns them. There was a soulfulness in Cooke’s music that no one since him has matched. I’m not prepared to anoint Bridges as his reincarnation just yet. But I’m willing to listen to arguments in favor. The first time I heard “River”, I knew I was hearing something deeper than just a nice-sounding soul song. It starts with the timbre of Bridges’s voice, which reaches an unimpeachable level of purity. It continues with the perfect sparseness of the production: just an acoustic guitar and a tambourine, and backing vocals from a choir. The purity of Bridges’s voice and the production are a reflection of the purity of the song’s spirit. Bridges, on this song, is a deer, panting for water, knowing that there is only one river that will satisfy his thirst. Only the most profound of hymns can articulate that need for Jesus with sufficient artistry; add “River” to their ranks.

Another Twenty-Five

Adele, “Hello”
Andrew Peterson, “The Sower’s Song”
ANOHNI, “4 Degrees”
Carly Rae Jepsen, “All That”
Caroline Spence, “Trains Cry”
Chromatics, “Just Like You”
Courtney Barnett, “Depreston”
Courtney Barnett, “Pedestrian at Best”
David Ramirez, “Hold On”
Gungor, “Us for Them”
Jamie xx, “Loud Places (feat. Romy)”
Janelle Monáe, “Hell You Talmbout (feat. Wondaland Records)”
Janet Jackson, “No Sleeep”
Jimmy Needham, “Vice & Virtue”
Justin Bieber, “What Do You Mean?”
KB, “Ima Just Do It (feat. Bubba Watson)”
Nadia Reid, “Call the Day’s”
Nao, “Inhale Exhale”
Rihanna, “Bitch Better Have My Money”
Sam Outlaw, “Country Love Song”
Samantha Crain, “Elk City”
The Weather Station, “Way It Is, Way It Could Be”
The Weeknd, “Can’t Feel My Face”
The Weeknd, “The Hills”
The White Buffalo, “Where Is Your Savior”

Past Top Tens

2014

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

2013

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

2012

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

2011

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

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”

If I Ran the 2016 Grammys

After a year in which Beyoncé’s best album yet lost to a Beck album that no one will ever listen to again, it was tempting to disregard the Grammys altogether. But doing a “fix the Grammys” post is such a great way to highlight underheard music, since God knows the Grammys aren’t doing that.

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 the group in bold.

2) We all know the October 1st, 2014-September 30th, 2015 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 25, but 1989 (from 2014, but released after October 1st, 2014) is fair game.

3) For the four major awards (Album, Record, Song, New Artist), I’m realistic. Phil Cook and Sufjan Stevens made two of my favorite albums in the qualifying year, but they would never be nominated for Album of the Year. However, Charli XCX and One Direction 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, groups like Drew Holcomb & the Neighbors, Diamond District, and Citizens & Saints getting nods over more popular acts in their respective categories..

4) Genre boundaries are fuzzy- Miguel’s album could really fit into rock or R&B, Laura Marling and Kevin Morby could easily be considered Americana instead of alternative, One Direction has a lot of rock songs on their album, etc. So I went with my gut. I don’t have your gut, so if you disagree with me on whether or not Titus Andronicus belongs in the rock or alternative category, sorry.

5) New rule this year! 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. I’ve often wondered why more award shows don’t open categories a bit more. If there are enough albums that truly deserve the be in the conversation, why not include them and draw more attention to more great music? Let’s have anarchy!

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Album of the Year

Real nominees: Sound & Color, Alabama Shakes
Traveller, Chris Stapleton
To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar
1989, Taylor Swift
Beauty Behind the Madness, The Weeknd

My nominees: Sound & Color, Alabama Shakes
Sucker, Charli XCX
To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar
Four, One Direction
1989, Taylor Swift

grammys02Surprise, surprise, I actually mostly agreed with the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences this year. The past two years I’ve had one album each year in common with the Grammys’ nominees, but this year I have three! It sure seems like Kendrick’s year, but Taylor Swift could easily take this, considering she basically rules the world. And I wouldn’t quite rule out Alabama Shakes, since rock albums have upset the favorite three out of the last five years. I don’t mind that the Grammys recognized The Weeknd and Christ Stapleton; they both received well-received albums that were also popular- they fit the bill, basically. But I’d rather single out a couple of pop records that didn’t have to be as great as they are: Charli XCX’s Sucker and One Direction’s Four.

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Record of the Year

Real nominees: “Really Love”, D’Angelo & the Vanguard
“Thinking Out Loud”, Ed Sheeran
“Uptown Funk (feat. Bruno Mars)”, Mark Ronson
“Blank Space”, Taylor Swift
“Can’t Feel My Face”, The Weeknd

My nominees: “Hotline Bling”, Drake
“Where Are Ü Now (feat. Justin Bieber)”, Jack Ü
“Uptown Funk (feat. Bruno Mars)”, Mark Ronson
“Blank Space”, Taylor Swift
“The Hills”, The Weeknd

grammys04Hard to argue with “Blank Space” or “Uptown Funk”. “Blank Space” is maybe the shiniest eligible song from 1989 with an impressive vocal performance from Swift, while “Uptown Funk” is just all-around unstoppable. It’s also hard to argue with “Can’t Feel My Face”, but I’ll do my best- as catchy as “Face” is, “The Hills” has the more interesting production and The Weeknd’s best singing performance yet. And all due respect to the great D’Angelo and the, uh, not-great Ed Sheeran, but can anyone pretend those songs are better than “Hotline Bling” or Diplo’s & Skrillex’s “Where Are Ü Now”?

Song of the Year

Real nominees: “Thinking Out Loud”, Ed Sheeran
“Alright”, Kendrick Lamar
“Girl Crush”, Little Big Town
“Blank Space”, Taylor Swift
“See You Again (feat. Charlie Puth)”, Wiz Khalifa

My nominees: “Don’t Wanna Fight”, Alabama Shakes
“Here”, Alessia Cara
“Alright”, Kendrick Lamar
“Wildest Dreams”, Taylor Swift
“Can’t Feel My Face”, The Weeknd

grammys06Here’s where the Academy should have put “Can’t Feel My Face”, because it’s an impeccably crafted song, and Song of the Year is supposed to reward songwriting. And I’m okay with them seconding “Blank Space”, because it’s a great song, but “Wildest Dreams” is the best straight-up songwriting on 1989. I like “Thinking Out Loud” and “See You Again” well enough, but I would never argue their songwriting is anything more than average. Cara’s “Here” and Alabama Shakes’s “Don’t Wanna Fight” are far more interesting songs. And while everyone has a different favorite song on To Pimp a Butterfly, “Alright” has had a raw, undeniable impact unlike any other. It will and should win.

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Best New Artist

Real nominees: Courtney Barnett
James Bay
Sam Hunt
Tori Kelly
Meghan Trainor

My nominees: Chance the Rapper
Courtney Barnett
Migos
Samantha Crain
Young Thug

grammys08This is always a weird one, because the Grammys are never clear on the criteria involved. Sure is nice that the Academy is recognizing Courtney Barnett and Meghan Trainor, but they came on the scene before this qualifying period. Anyway, you could say the same for, well, all of my choices, but they all truly reached new peaks of quality and publicity. None more so than Chance, who has risen as an independent from obscurity as a niche Chicago performer to a leading cultural voice. In the real world, expect the white male rocker to win. He’s the only one I haven’t heard of.

Best Pop Album

Real nominees: How Big How Blue How Beautiful, Florence + the Machine
Before This World, James Taylor
Piece by Piece, Kelly Clarkson
Uptown Special, Mark Ronson
1989, Taylor Swift

My nominees: Brand New, Ben Rector
Sucker, Charli XCX
Honeymoon, Lana Del Rey
Four, One Direction
1989, Taylor Swift

grammys10I feel like Swift not winning this award may signify the apocalypse, so ink her in. Florence, Clarkson, and Ronson are all fine, but the fact that James Taylor is nominated for this on an album that includes an ode to Fenway Park’s storied history is just one more piece of evidence of the Grammys’ lunacy. Obviously I’d put XCX and 1D here, since I nominated them for Album of the Year. Lana Del Rey continues to turn out great work with little industry recognition; maybe she’s still paying for that one awful SNL performance? And though Ben Rector would probably never achieve the kind of popularity necessary for a Grammy nod, he deserves one in my book.

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Best Rock Album

Real nominees: Kintsugi, Death Cab for Cutie
Mister Asylum, Highly Suspect
Chaos and the Calm, James Bay
Drones, Muse
.5: The Gray Chapter, Slipknot

My nominees: Sound & Color, Alabama Shakes
Medicine, Drew Holcomb & the Neighbors
Strange Trails, Lord Huron
Runners in the Nerved World, The Sidekicks
Currents, Tame Impala
The Most Lamentable Tragedy, Titus Andronicus

grammys12Okay, what on earth is going on in this category? I don’t really enjoy Muse, but, okay, fine. But the washed up Death Cab and Slipknot, and two artists I’ve never heard of? I suppose this may mean I’m not tuned in to the rock world, but it seems more likely that the Grammys are just stupid. Let’s be real, Sound & Color is a rock album- it belongs here, not in the Alternative Album category below, which it will win. Tame Impala also belongs here, but it’s weird enough that its Alternative status is understandable. The rest of the category could be filled out by some light rock (Holcomb), folk rock (Huron), emo revival (Sidekicks), and a 29-track rock opera (Titus).

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Best Alternative Album

Real nominees: Sound & Color, Alabama Shakes
Vulnicura, Björk
The Waterfall, My Morning Jacket
Currents, Tame Impala
Star Wars, Wilco

My nominees: Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, Courtney Barnett
Poison Season, Destroyer
Why Make Sense?, Hot Chip
Still Life, Kevin Morby
Short Movie, Laura Marling
Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, Panda Bear
Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan Stevens
Loyalty, The Weather Station

grammys14This is one of the least offensive categories; there are strong contenders each year, because alternative rock is less affected by the industry’s troubles and continues to churn out great content. I don’t personally like the albums by Björk, My Morning Jacket, or Wilco, but I’m also not personally opposed to them. Strange that they’re recognizing Barnett in Best New Artist, but she failed to secure the nod here. She deserves it, and she’d deserve to win too, if it weren’t for Sufjan’s incredible ode to his parents following the death of his mother. You could make good cases for the rest of the contenders- the Springsteen-like sweep of Destroyer, the electronic ambivalence of Hot Chip, the Dylan-channeling poetry of Morby, the gothic folk of Marling, the indie-rock throwback of Panda Bear, or the chanteuse warbling of The Weather Station- but Carrie & Lowell eclipses them all.

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Best R&B Album

Real nominees: Cheers to the Fall, Andra Day
Forever Charlie, Charlie Wilson
Black Messiah, D’Angelo & the Vanguard
Reality Show, Jazmine Sullivan
Coming Home, Leon Bridges

My nominees: Black Messiah, D’Angelo & the Vanguard
Blackheart, Dawn Richard
Reality Show, Jazmine Sullivan
The London Sessions, Mary J. Blige
Wildheart, Miguel
Aquarius, Tinashe

grammys16D’Angelo probably has this locked up, but Leon Bridges (whose album I still haven’t gotten around to…whoops) and Jazmine Sullivan (whose album I just got around to and is excellent) stand a fair chance of upsetting the famous recluse. Strangely, though he has some popular cache, Miguel has been completely ignored this year, even though Wildheart was one of the more ambitious records of the year. And how the Grammys passed up a chance to acknowledge one of their favorite honorees from years past, Mary J. Blige, I’ll never understand. The rest of the roster is filled out by a couple of women just beginning to find some traction in the industry, Dawn Richard and Tinashe.

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Best Rap Album

Real nominees: Compton, Dr. Dre
If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, Drake
2014 Forest Hills Drive, J. Cole
To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar
The Pinkprint, Nicki Minaj

My nominees: March on Washington, Diamond District
If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late, Drake
The Art of Joy, Jackie Hill Perry
To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar
Run the Jewels 2, Run the Jewels
Rise, Trip Lee
Barter 6, Young Thug

It was a strong year for rap, though you can feel 2016 beginning to flex its muscles. Kendrick obviously has this wrapped up, but Drake is a worthy second in the real award’s race. Run the Jewels and Young Thug are critically acclaimed enough that it wouldn’t be surprising to see them in this category at some point in the future. Diamond District is pretty off the Academy’s radar, but their March on Washington was one of the most immediate albums I heard last year. But Perry’s Art of Joy and Lee’s Rise were great late additions to 2014, and either of them could have stolen my vote if Kendrick hadn’t released the best album of the past few years.

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Best Christian Album

Real nominees (Contemporary Christian Music Album): Love Ran Red, Chris Tomlin
Whatever the Road, Jason Crabb
How Can It Be, Lauren Daigle
Saints and Sinners, Matt Maher
This Is Not a Test, Tobymac

My nominees: Join the Triumph, Citizens & Saints
Carry the Fire, Dustin Kensrue
One Wild Life: Soul, Gungor
Vice & Virtue, Jimmy Needham
Home, Josh Garrels

grammys20Like I said last year, “Christian” isn’t really a genre, but it’s a handy categorization to help me recognize a few more great artists. Tobymac will probably win this on name recognition alone, which is sad since his best years are behind him, but it’s not like the Grammys should be the arbiter for Christian culture anyway. Citizens & Saints released perhaps the best worship album of the year. Former Thrash frontman continues a quality solo career with Carry the Fire. Home is a nice expansion of Josh Garrels’s already unique talent. One Wild Life: Soul was a great return to form for Gungor. But Vice & Virtue gets this one for perhaps the most perfect distillation of Needham’s brand of Christian funk-rock yet.

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Best Americana Album

Real nominees (Country Album): The Blade, Ashley Monroe
Traveller, Chris Stapleton
Pageant Material, Kacey Musgraves
Pain Killer, Little Big Town
Montevallo, Sam Hunt

My nominees: Fables, David Ramirez
High on Tulsa Heat, John Moreland
Pageant Material, Kacey Musgraves
A Light That Never Dies, KaiL Baxley
Southland Mission, Phil Cook
Under Branch and Thorn and Tree, Samantha Crain
Dark Bird Is Home, The Tallest Man on Earth
Love and the Death of Damnation, The White Buffalo

grammys22Here’s the richest category of the year, and the Grammys actually did a pretty good job with it. Little Big Town and Sam Hunt are fine, Chris Stapleton is exceptional, and Monroe and Musgraves are both bringing new blood to the country genre. But look at all those names under my nominees! Crain and Moreland are leading voices in the Oklahoma music scene, telling stories that get under your skin in ways both uplifting and infuriating. Ramirez, Tallest Man, and Buffalo are all talented songwriters who solidified both their musical signatures and lyrical voices with their most recent albums. And Cook went from helping make Bon Iver a household (ish?) name to synthesizing New Orleans blues and folk into a life-affirming gift of an album. Give the Grammy to Chris Stapleton, but someone get Phil Cook a major label deal.

Tentative Top Tens for 2015

Once the 2015 Bummys came along, there ended up being only four remaining movies from my Tentative Top Ten for 2014. For contrast, only one of my 2015 Bummy albums was different from my Tentative Top Ten for 2014.

So take these lists with a grain of salt- they’ll undoubtedly change by next September when the 2016 Bummys are broadcast (check your local listings!). That said, I loved everything in this post- every movie, album, series, and book would be worth your time.

I don’t read enough books or comics or watch enough TV to make full lists of those. But I included  one of each anyway.

FURY ROAD

Movies

1. Mad Max: Fury Road
2. Inside Out
3. Sicario
4. Ex Machina
5. Beasts of No Nation
6. Timbuktu
7. It Follows
8. Furious 7
9. About Elly
10. Avengers: Age of Ultron

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Albums

1. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
2. Alabama Shakes, Sounds & Color
3. Phil Cook, Southland Mission
4. Samantha Crain, Under Branch and Thorn and Tree
5. Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
6. The Tallest Man on Earth, Dark Bird Is Home
7. Jimmy Needham, Vice & Virtue
8. Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell
9. Gungor, One Wild Life: Soul
10. Ben Rector, Brand New

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Best Book I Read This Year

Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering by Tim Keller

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Best Comic Series I Read This Year

The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman

Best TV Series I Watched This Year

Hannibal

Best Music of 2015 So Far

Welp, it’s 2015 and Taylor Swift is still dominating music. As much as rap tends to dominate the airwaves, it’s earnest pop music like Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, and Sam Smith that continues to have staying power in album sales. Swift has been in the Billboard Top 10 for 35 straight weeks, and it appears she’s averaged out at position #2 for that whole time, so we might as well call it a year. She’s reaching 2011-2013 Adele levels of world domination, though Adele was in the top 10 for a total of 80 straight weeks, so T-Swift’s still got a long ways to go. But considering she’s still in the top 5 after 9 months, we might as well call it a year. Pack it in, music industry. Taylor’s won. The next five albums may as well function as my Top 5 for the whole year. Seeya in 2016, pop music. Bye.

Albums

bestsofar01Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color: Alabama Shakes’s Boys & Girls was a perfect slice of a beach party, mixing the pathos of the blues with the chill of surf rock. Sound & Color is what happens when the bonfire gets out of control. Even if rock as we knew it is basically dead, on Sound & Color Alabama Shakes have delivered an explosion of the genre at its best.

bestsofar02Jimmy Needham, Vice & VirtueBefore this year, you’d be forgiven for thinking Jimmy Needham was soft. Speak, his bitingly blunt debut album, was released way back in 2006, so it was easy to forget how lovingly rebuking his songs could be. After the funky Vice, you won’t mistake him for anything but hardened by the ravages of sin and emboldened by the mercy of the empty tomb.

bestsofar03Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly: With great expectations comes great responsibility, and Kendrick has more than lived up to his end. Expectations were sky high after the cinematic good kidButterfly rocketed past them as very personal and yet somehow universal.

bestsofar04Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & LowellWe’re fifteen years into Sufjan’s career, ten years removed from Illinois, and five from Age of Adz. We’ve gotten scads of Christmas EPs and a symphonic meditation on a highway. And Carrie & Lowell is the first time I feel like I’ve seen the real Sufjan.

bestsofar05The Tallest Man on Earth, Dark Bird Is HomeMaking changes to one’s sound is always risky, and the breakup album seems like the most volatile time to make an attempt. But that’s exactly the hill Kristian Matsson determined to climb with Dark Bird. He expanded his sound from provincial folk to play around the edges of synth-rock, all in the name of purging his demons.

Songs

Fetty Wap, “Trap Queen”: That Furious 7 song will probably earn “Song of the Summer” honors at the end of August, but as far as I’m concerned, “Trap Queen” is the Song of the Spring, Summer, Winter and Fall.

Kendrick Lamar, “i [Album Version]”: The version of “i” that Kendrick Lamar was great enough, but the song that appears on the album sounds like a cherished bootleg copy with an added verse that functions as the epiphany of the whole brilliant record.

Sufjan Stevens, “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”: Sufjan has penned beautiful acoustic folk songs before, but none have ever had the emotional power of this single about dealing with his mother’s death.

The Tallest Man on Earth, “Sagres”: The warmest song Matsson has released to date; it’s also his most vulnerable, as he ponders whether hope is really worth it.

The Weather Station, “Way It Is, Way It Could Be”: A simple song, to be sure, but it’s haunted me more than any other this year.

Most Anticipated Albums of (the rest of) 2015

Gungor, One Wild Life: Soul (8/7): The eclectic band is releasing three new albums soon, the first of which is One Wild Life: Soul and is hopefully going to move in a more solid direction after 2013’s scattered I Am Mountain.

Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free (7/17): This will be the best songwriter in alt-country’s second album as a sober man, and arrives in anticipation of his first child with wife Amanda Shires, who will appear on the album.

Joan Shelley, Over and Even (9/4): If Isbell is alt-country’s best songwriter, Shelley might just  be alt-folk’s.

Sara Groves, Floodplain (9/11): Groves has never released an album I haven’t loved, and I don’t expect Floodplain to break that streak.

Titus Andronicus, The Most Lamentable Tragedy (7/31): This will definitely be the best five-act rock opera of the year.

Music Bummys 2013: Best Albums of 2012

[It’s okay to mourn- 2012 was a long time ago, and we’re well into 2013, which is not the year that 2012 was.  Indeed, 2012 was the best year for pop culture in a long time- at least since 2009.  There wasn’t a runaway favorite in the music scene like Adele’s 21 in 2011,  but that’s because there were so many great offerings from 2012.  There wasn’t a clear favorite in Hollywood like…well, there wasn’t a clear favorite in 2011 either, was there?  But that was for lack of quality, whereas in 2012 we were inundated with quality movies the entire year.  Ah, the good old days.  Excuse me while I take out my teeth and reach for my prune juice.

2012 was a banner year, and what better time to look back at it than 9 months later?  No, seriously.  You don’t think so?  That’s okay.  Honestly, if I could, I’d do these Bummys lists right at the beginning of the year, but when January rolls around, I still have so many movies to watch and so much music to listen to, I can’t make a year-end list.  So I have to settle for what in our culture of immediacy amounts to a retrospective, akin to those montages at the Oscars for the celebrities that passed away that year.  We look back in fondness on the historic year of 2012; may the entire cast of Cloud Atlas rest in peace.]

Interestingly, I’ve already done a Top 10 Albums of 2012 list, at the end of the year, in conjunction with my friend’s blog.  Also interesting: four albums that made an appearance on that list don’t show up on this one.  I guess my perspective changed a little bit.  Two folk albums, the Vespers’ The Fourth Wall and Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Leaving Eden, were replaced by a rap album and a Christian electronic album, something I definitely didn’t expect.  Trip Lee fell to the “Fifteen More” category.  And Alabama Shakes, my beloved Alabama Shakes, were replaced by a brother duo from Texas that no one’s heard of.  I’m not sure what I was thinking, but I’m sure of one thing: this is the right list.

Top Albums of 2012

kendricklamar10. Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d city: A lot of albums profess to be concept albums, LPs with a plot and characters, but the majority end up having the vague outline of a story rather than the concrete and significant details that add weight to a narrative (see: American Idiot and The Black Parade, both great albums, but not great concept albums).  Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city might be the most fully fleshed-out concept album I’ve ever heard.  It helps that Lamar’s focus on his concept album is more specific than most; good kid is a chronicle of one evening in Lamar’s life out on the streets with his friends while they cruise around in his parents’ van.  From this one evening comes a treasure trove of insight about his lack of pleasure in his hedonistic but monotonous lifestyle (“Swimming Pools (Drank)”), his neverending search for escape (“B*tch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”), and his dependence on his rapping for fulfillment (“Poetic Justice”).  But the overall takeaways from good kid are Lamar’s incredible self-awareness as he quotes Scripture and prayers in the midst of his own sinfulness, as well as the cyclical culture of the streets, mirrored in the way the record ends right where it began, implying that the sin and tragedy Kendrick places before us is only going to keep going.

benjamindunn9. Benjamin Dunn & the Animal Orchestra, Fable: If you had given up on Christian music before 2012 (and who could blame you, really…), you picked a terrible time to do it.  Independent Christian music is on the rise, with the help of Derek Webb’s NoiseTrade website, which coincidentally just released an offer for Benjamin Dunn’s discography for free (the offer’s over, btw- it was only a week; sorry, you snooze, you lose).  Benjamin Dunn synthesizes rock and electronic music into a wildly satisfying blend of happiness.  The music would induce rapture on its own, but Dunn has paired it with a libretto that draws inspiration from C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books both in its characters and in its themes.  Characters like Eustace and Caspian show up to demonstrate our dependence on grace and God’s sovereignty, and “When We Were Young”, the best song on the album (and one of the best of the year), is an ecstatic ode to the glories of being young, something Lewis would have appreciated.  Put Fable on when the news in the world is getting you down, and you’ll be instantly reminded why you were originally captivated by God’s grace.

theolivetree8. The Olive Tree, Our Desert Ways: It’s no secret I’m a fan of folk music, but Our Desert Ways is really the only folk album on this list (with the possible exception of Andrew Peterson, sure, maybe, whatever), and it’s about as simple as folk music comes.  It’s basically two brothers, their acoustic guitars, and the occasional percussion.  And that’s all you need for great music when you’re a great songwriter; Our Desert Ways makes the case that The Olive Tree has two great songwriters on their hands.  My wife compared them to Caedmon’s Call, which she meant in a derogatory manner (she hates Caedmon’s Call, for some demonic reason…), though I’ll emphatically steal her comparison and use it for good.  Caedmon’s Call has always had folk leanings, but their consistent quality is Gospel-centered lyrics buoyed by stable melodies, the perfect description for The Olive Tree as well.  This can give CC and The Olive Tree a hokey feel sometimes, but Our Desert Ways’s commitment to storytelling and the Gospel have made this into a record that will endure.

fionaapple7. 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: I can’t stand the stylings of metal or hardcore, and noise-rock tends to make me shudder, but I can’t get enough of the dissonance and strange chord changes of Fiona Apple.  Even the most listenable songs on The Idler Wheel… (“Every Single Night”, “Anything We Want”) are minor in key and unapologetically complicated in their construction.  They match their maker without a doubt; the most memorable lyric on the album, “nothin’ wrong when a song ends in the minor key” applies to both Apple’s music and, ostensibly, her life’s situations.  She never sounds comfortable, but if she’s comfortable with anything, it’s the fact that she’s a screwed-up person and her life is equally as screwed up.  On “Jonathan”, she begs to be kissed while her mind is racing.  On “Left Alone”, she talks about her tears calcifying in her stomach, so that she can’t cry when she’s sad.  And on the standout “Werewolf”, she claims complicity in the dissolution of a relationship, comparing her significant other to a shark and her faults to “waving around a bleeding open wound”.  I hope this album provided her some catharsis, because the songs portray a person with complex issues that needed to be dealt with- in other words, a human being.

brucespringsteen6. Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball: I wonder if Bruce Springsteen is the kind of artist I’m supposed to grow out of: earnest dad rock made by a man whose biggest hits were before I was born.  There’s no nostalgia holding me to Bruce, since I didn’t listen to him until college, and he’s hardly a defining artist of my generation.  Regardless, I can’t let go; he keeps putting out albums, and I keep loving them.  Wrecking Ball continues his trend of politically leaning albums mixing rock with folk begun in the 2000s with The Rising and continued with Magic and Working on a Dream.  We all know where Springsteen falls on the political spectrum (if you don’t, search Google for “Bruce Springsteen” and “campaign song”), but what often gets lost is the universality of Bruce’s lyrics and music.  If you remove Bruce the person from the songs, it’s hard to argue with words like “Let a man work, is that so wrong?” or “The road of good intentions has gone as dry as a bone”.  On an album where Bruce Springsteen swerves into hip-hop for the first time, I resist the idea that I could ever grow out of Bruce Springteen.  Instead, I’m seeing more and more than he’s one of the best artists of any time.

davidcrowderband5. David Crowder*Band, Give Us Rest; or, A Requiem Mass in C (The Happiest of All Keys): You know, David Crowder*Band had nothing left to prove.  They had already made at least three great records without releasing a bad one, on top of putting together a rollicking live show that mixed their standards with others’ worship songs and bluegrass hymns.  When they announced they’d be releasing their last album and embarking on their final tour, their legacy was intact.  They were the premier Christian pioneers of creative music-making, bringing innovation and excitement to a genre that was (and is) severely lacking in both.  Give Us Rest didn’t have to be their best album ever, and on its release, a lot of critics dismissed it as too long, too indulgent, too boring.  And they’re entitled to their opinions; they’re just wrong.  Give Us Rest is a joyous eruption of desperate praise.  It’s 100 minutes long, which is daunting at first, but there’s not a down spot on the album; even the instrumentals glow with vitality.  I’m not sure that, if I step back and think on it, I would say Give Us Rest is David Crowder*Band’s best album.  But while I listen to it, I certainly feel like it is.

japandroids4. Japandroids, Celebration Rock: There was a time in the distant, shrouded past when rock and roll was pure and unadulterated, forged in the fires of youthful passion and glorious naïveté, free from corporate greed and machinated studio contracts.  And even though none of that is true, Japandroids will make you believe it is.  Celebration Rock is exactly that: a celebration of the excesses of the music that is rock.  The titles of the songs (“Fire’s Highway”, “Adrenaline Nightshift”, “Continuous Thunder”) gesture toward the great expectations Japandroids has for their music’s effectiveness.  Japandroids is just two people, but they play with more force than most groups of any number, to the point where they’re in your heart before you even realize that everyone likes them so you’re not supposed to.

frankocean3. Frank Ocean, channel ORANGE: One of my friends has called Frank Ocean the “black Bon Iver”, which he meant as an insult, but it’s actually a pretty apt comparison.  Both artists make supremely melancholy music that transcends whatever genre they get pigeonholed in; both artists have seen success in the mainstream but truly belong somewhere outside of the radio box;  and both have unlikely partnerships with Kanye West that helped stretch his music beyond his soul-sampling comfort zone.  But with all due respect to Bon Iver, Frank Ocean is the reigning king of disillusionment.  The characters in his songs either live on the fringes of the world or they live the high life; there’s not really a middle ground for him (unless you count the average Joe in “Forrest Gump”, but he’s obsessed with the titular athlete, so he’ll end up on the fringes somehow, some way).  But all the perspectives he adopts share a sense of melancholy that can’t be duplicated.  The result is a boom in alt-R&B acts that are striving (some more successfully than others) to do just that; but channel ORANGE is that rare album that stands and will stand as a marker of its time, the first of its kind.

lecrae2. Lecrae, Gravity: A couple weeks ago, the rapper Evangel released a track online called “Hey Mr. Gravity” directed at Lecrae and the new direction he’s gone with his music.  Evangel took it down soon after, acknowledging that releasing a song that came off as a diss track probably wasn’t the best way to call out a brother.  It’s a shame, because Evangel’s song provided the perfect sounding board with which to test Lecrae’s methodology, so that we don’t just take Gravity  at face value.  I understand where Evangel was coming from- Lecrae is walking a fine line as he tries to rap from the perspective of those without Jesus, occasionally veering towards vilifying the church, God’s bride, and excusing sin.  But it’s a line on which Lecrae ultimately comes down on the right side, pointing to Jesus’s power and not man’s as the solution to our ills.  In fact, the more I listen to Gravity, the more I think Evangel must have forgotten to listen to it himself.  This is Lecrae’s best record yet, and his first to sound like he doesn’t care if it has a hit or not.  He moves away from the club-banger style that dominated Rehab and Overdose and branches out, embracing trap (“Lord Have Mercy”), Drake-style rap&B (“Confe$$ions”), and Afro-rap (“Violence”).  But the majority of the disc features the southern rap style that is dominating Reach Records’ recent releases, and you hear it here at its rollicking best.  Lecrae receives plenty of help from Trip Lee, Sho Baraka, Tedashii, Andy Mineo, and the rest of the usuals (along with a surprise appearance from Big K.R.I.T. on standout “Mayday”), but by the end of the record it’s clear that none of them are the star.  Finishing the album with “Tell the World” and “Lucky Ones”, songs that drive home our need to tell others the Gospel, Lecrae places Gravity firmly in Christ’s hands where it belongs.

andrewpeterson1. Andrew Peterson, Light for the Lost Boy: My wonderful wife bought us tickets to Andrew Peterson’s show in Linden, TX this weekend for my birthday.  When I tell people this, it’s with a certain amount of childish excitement that must come across on my face or in my voice or something, because they ask in a frightened way, “Who is he?”  I tell them he’s a Christian folk artist, and we all go on our merry way, but I fear I’m underselling him.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with Christian folk, and it’s a designation that certainly would have been true for his first seven or eight albums (give or take his classic Christmas album); but frankly, Light for the Lost Boy fails to qualify as folk.  From his last album (the excellent Counting Stars) to Light, Andrew Peterson significantly expanded his palette.  Much like 2011’s best album, Gungor’s Ghosts upon the Earth, Light for the Lost Boys doesn’t abandon what made its predecessor great; after all, there are still Americana stylings hanging around.  But there’s so much more to enjoy, from the almost grunge guitars mixing with U2 reverb on “The Cornerstone” to the indie-pop of “The Voice of Jesus” and “Shine Your Light on Me” and on to the swirling, 10-minute epic “Don’t You Want to Think Someone”.  Peterson’s sound is fuller on this album, more ambitious and more realized at the same time.  This jump in musicality befits a similar jump in themes.  Counting Stars was simpler, focused on family and devoted love.  Light for the Lost Boy focuses on those as well, but adds the passage of time, purpose, the grandeur of God in nature, and theological quandaries to the mix.  It’s both the biggest album on this list and the smallest, and it’s time you listened to it.

Fifteen More (in alphabetic order)
Alabama Shakes: Boys & Girls
Amadou & Mariam: Folila
Anaïs Mitchell: Young Man in America
Beautiful Eulogy: Satellite Kite
Carolina Chocolate Drops: Leaving Eden
Christopher Paul Stelling: Songs of Praise and Scorn
Flatfoot 56: Toil
Grizzly Bear: Shields
Jack White: Blunderbuss
John Fullbright: From the Ground Up
Matt Mays: Coyote
Passion Pit: Gossamer
Propaganda: Excellent
Trip Lee: The Good Life
The Vespers: The Fourth Wall

Top Albums of 2013 (So Far, in alphabetic order)

Jason Isbell, Southeastern: Probably my favorite album of the year (so far).  Isbell has released other good records since leaving Drive-By Truckers, but Southeastern is by far his most personal and forceful as he chronicles his recovery from alcoholism.

Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience: Corporate it may be, but there’s no denying that JT has once again made an album of songs that change our ideas of what pop should sound like today.  This time he does so using funk and R&B sounds of the past.

KaiL Baxley, HeatStroke / The Wind and the War: This is the record that never fell on your radar this year.  And if it weren’t for me, this diverse collection of funk and folk would have stayed off your grid.  You’re welcome.

Laura Marling, Once I Was an Eagle: I’ve heard a lot of comparisons to past artists for Laura Marling (much like Jake Bugg), but they’re useless.  Marling is a singular voice in a conformist world.  Her spare arrangements and vocals beg for creative descriptions and not lazy comparisons.

Patty Griffin, American Kid: Time after time, Patty Griffin turns out great alternative country albums.  Her newest is a tribute to her late father, and the intimacy is apparent in both the personal lyrics and the immediate music.

Most Anticipated Albums of 2013 (The Rest of the Year, in alphabetic order)

Drake, Nothing Was the Same: There aren’t many artists for whom I would willingly dive into depression and self-degradingly hedonistic behavior in order to hopefully better myself, but Drizzy is one of them.

Gungor, I Am Mountain: The title could either be awesome or laughable, I haven’t decided yet.  But I know on which side of that line the actual music will fall.  Their last album, Ghosts upon the Earth was my favorite album of 2011.  Some dropoff would be expected, but Gungor has always been a unique and surprising band, so all bets are off.

Janelle Monáe, The Electric Lady: Her The ArchAndroid was one of the best albums of 2010, though it failed to catch on with the mainstream.  I’m a little disconcerted that she’s trying to appeal more to that demographic with this album, but early singles “Dance Apocalyptic” and “Q.U.E.E.N.” don’t sound like anything on the radio, so good riddance to that idea!

Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience Part 2: It’s hard to imagine this living up to the success of Part 1, and “Take Back the Night” isn’t necessarily a smash, but at this point, I’m not betting against JT.

M.I.A., Matangi: “Bad Girls” and “Come Walk with Me” are superb.  Here’s to hoping for a massive improvement on her terrible 2010 LP /\/\ /\ Y /\.

Previous Top Albums

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

2010

Titus Andronicus: The Monitor
Andrew Peterson: Counting Stars
Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Gungor: Beautiful Things
Arcade Fire: The Suburbs
Surfer Blood: Astro Coast
The Tallest Man on Earth: The Wild Hunt
Jars of Clay: The Shelter
Ben Rector: Into the Morning
Local Natives: Gorilla Manor

Music Bummys 2013: Best Songs of 2012

[It’s okay to mourn- 2012 was a long time ago, and we’re well into 2013, which is not the year that 2012 was.  Indeed, 2012 was the best year for pop culture in a long time- at least since 2009.  There wasn’t a runaway favorite in the music scene like Adele’s 21 in 2011,  but that’s because there were so many great offerings from 2012.  There wasn’t a clear favorite in Hollywood like…well, there wasn’t a clear favorite in 2011 either, was there?  But that was for lack of quality, whereas in 2012 we were inundated with quality movies the entire year.  Ah, the good old days.  Excuse me while I take out my teeth and reach for my prune juice.

2012 was a banner year, and what better time to look back at it than 9 months later?  No, seriously.  You don’t think so?  That’s okay.  Honestly, if I could, I’d do these Bummys lists right at the beginning of the year, but when January rolls around, I still have so many movies to watch and so much music to listen to, I can’t make a year-end list.  So I have to settle for what in our culture of immediacy amounts to a retrospective, akin to those montages at the Oscars for the celebrities that passed away that year.  We look back in fondness on the historic year of 2012; may the entire cast of Cloud Atlas rest in peace.]

As far as songs go, 2012 didn’t have one dominant song of the year, as far as popular music goes.  There was no “Someone Like You” or “Runaway” or even “My Girls” for the hipster crowd.  You may bring up “Call Me Maybe” or “Somebody That I Used to Know”, and while I thought for sure those would at least fall in my top 25, they didn’t make the cut.  I love those songs, but 2012 was a GREAT year for music, so, sorry, Canada and Australia.  As for Christian music, 2012 was an unusually big year; half of my top ten are Christian songs.

Top Songs of 2012

alabamashakes10. “Hold On” by Alabama Shakes: I suppose you could lump Alabama Shakes in with The White Stripes and The Black Keys as some have done, insofar as all three share a garage blues rock sensibility.  But to do that is almost to dismiss Alabama Shakes for being derivative, and then you’d miss out on what separates AS from their elder statesmen, and that’s youth.  But youth isn’t even the right word for it, since both Jack White and the Keys still make music with a distinctly virile feel.  The youth that is on display in the Shakes’ music (and most notably on “Hold On”, the perfect album opener on their thickfreak Boys & Girls) is unashamed of its feelings, unabashed in its embrace of adolescent dreaming.  When frontwoman Brittany Howard wails “I don’t wanna wait!” on the chorus, she’s channeling a kind of youthful desire that no one else today is tapping into.

christopherpaulstelling9. “Mourning Train to Memphis” by Christopher Paul Stelling: If “Hold On” is the young woman song, “Mourning Train to Memphis” is the old man song.  Where Alabama Shakes thrive on childlike exuberance, Stelling flourishes when he fully dives into existential lamentation.  I’ve been listening to this song for a year now, and it never fails to stir that pit in my stomach that only appears when I’m deeply, emotionally wounded.  What, that doesn’t make you want to listen to this song?  Well, I’m sure you will if I tell you that it’s about a beloved geriatric dying of cancer and being buried.  No?  Well, your loss; you’re missing out on one of the best folk songs in recent memory.  More deep stomach pits for me.

frankocean8. “Bad Religion” by Frank Ocean: There are probably about three or four other songs from channel ORANGE that I could substitute for this song depending on which day of the week you ask me.  Monday is more of a “Pyramids” day.  Friday I’ll probably be leaning toward “Super Rich Kids” and getting ready for a joy ride in Daddy’s Jaguar.  “Thinking Bout You” could fit on Wednesday, I guess (this gimmick is running out of steam).  But “Bad Religion” takes the rest of the days.  It’s the best showcase of Ocean’s smooth vocals, sure, but it also happens to be the track where he comes close to revealing what’s in the heart of his soul.  I understand that this is about Ocean being in love with a man, and while I don’t support that or believe it’s right, I appreciate that he bares his inner thoughts and fears to us so completely.  Who isn’t afraid that “the one” won’t love them?  Would that we could all sound so beautiful when we’re in despair.

benjamindunn7. “When We Were Young” by Benjamin Dunn & the Animal Orchestra: Goodness gracious me!  I need a playground, stat.  This song makes me feel like a kid again, or at least it makes me wish that I could remember what it feels like to be a kid.  I know I said that no one else was tapping into youthful desire like Alabama Shakes, and, well…I stand by that statement completely!  Benjamin Dunn & whoever the Animal Orchestra is aren’t really encapsulating youthful desire, they’re capturing what it feels like to remember it.  And they’re doing it in one of the catchiest choruses of any year, let alone 2012.

andrewpeterson6. “Day by Day” by Andrew Peterson: On first listen, I didn’t think much of “Day by Day”.  There are so many good songs on Peterson’s Light for the Lost Boy that it kind of got lost in the shuffle.  But as I repeatedly played the album again and again in my car, “Day by Day” began to jump out at me.  It’s like how everyone likes The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when they first read the Narnia books, and The Magician’s Nephew is kind of boring, but as you read them multiple times, The Magician’s Nephew stands out as one of the most inventive and wise of the series.  “Day by Day” is like that.  Day after day of listening to it made the song grow on me. Now I’m fully in love with its singular forward motion, the perceptive lyrics about missing your childhood, the wanting so badly to be made new each and every day.  Maybe it’s because I’m at such a crossroads in my life, and the theme of time passing me by on my way to heaven really strikes a chord with me.  But Peterson’s song is a reminder that the mundanity of life on Earth points to a glorious eternity when the passing of the days will only produce more and more joy.  I know that message is not just for me.

usher5. “Climax” by Usher: A song by Usher called “Climax” is begging to not be taken seriously.  But this is the best, and weirdest, song that Usher has ever made.  The structure isn’t familiar to pop or hip-hop; it’s distinctly R&B, but the kind of R&B that they’re playing on the moon somewhere*.  If the title “Climax” sounds like it should belong to an ecstatic anthem to sex and, you know, what happens during sex, the actual song is best enjoyed without thinking about the possible humor in the double entendre.  When accepted fully as a serious song, “Climax” is heartwrenching and will make you want to remain celibate for fear of being as hurt as Usher sounds.  Though, once again, like in “Bad Religion”, if this is what getting burned by love sounds like, I should’ve recorded more alt-R&B songs in high school.

lecrae4. “Church Clothes” by Lecrae: This is the shortest song on this list, and it’s also the one most likely to burn a hole in your brain.  This is one that sticks with you.  Lecrae has never been one to mince words, but on this track (off his mixtape by the same name) he’s spitting real talk of the realest sort.  Over a delightfully retro and makeshift beat that intermittently morphs into a souled-out burner, Lecrae pulls off something remarkable.  “Church Clothes” starts out as a diatribe against everything we should hate about hypocritical churches, things we can all agree give us pause.  Then Lecrae deftly turns the microscope back on us and demolishes all the real reasons why we don’t give ourselves to the church.  Crae’s implication is that our problems with the church are legitimate, but they become excuses for why we don’t submit to God and start serving the church, which has always been God’s vessel for bringing His kingdom in.  Point taken, Lecrae.

davidramirez3. “Fire of Time” by David Ramirez: If Johnny Cash were alive today, he would have made this song, and it would have received the attention that Ramirez’s version deserves.  As it is, this is the best Johnny Cash song he never recorded, and the best song Ramirez has (though it has competition there- see below).  My hope is that Ramirez hasn’t really been in the place that he’s writing from in this song, but it’s far too genuine for that to be the case.  The man in this song has chased after the fleeting desires of this world and become addicted, and, miraculously, someone, probably a woman, has broken through his walls and is pulling him out.  “Fire of Time” is simple; but it doesn’t have to be anything more.

triplee2. “One Sixteen (feat. KB & Andy Mineo)” by Trip Lee: Oh my word this song is amazing.  There’s not a single thing about this song that isn’t awesome.  Every bar is basically a hook.  Which, in a twisted way, makes this the “Ignition [Remix]” of rap songs.  That part where Trip sneaks “man” onto the end of his verse to make the phrase “rocket man” like we wouldn’t notice.  That part where KB compares God to Bo Peep.  That part where Trip makes an astute basketball reference.  That part where KB rhymes “murder does” with “surge of us” and “churches up” because duh.  That part where Andy Mineo raps and kills everyone else in the world.  Best rap song ever?  Okay, that’s an unnecessary argument that I don’t want to get into.  …but maybe?

jimmyneedham1. “Clear the Stage” by Jimmy Needham: For eight years now, Jimmy Needham has been writing songs that toe the line between CCM** and R&B like someone who isn’t concerned with the status quo or that oldfangled thing called the radio that we used to listen to when we were kids.  Jimmy’s songs are funky and full of life, with lyrics that cut to the core of the Gospel and what it looks like to worship the Lord in the midst of a messed up world.  “Clear the Stage” isn’t funky or playful. In fact, it’s a ballad with piano and synth strings and a swelling chorus that actually would fit right in on Air1.  It goes along with the rest of Jimmy’s most recent album (also called Clear the Stage) in that it tends to be geared more towards a more radio-friendly sound.  It also happens to be the best song he’s ever recorded.  What has always made Jimmy a cut above the rest was his brutal honesty.  “Clear the Stage” cuts through the crap and reminds you that you’re full of it, you don’t really think about those words you sing at church, and it’s time you really began to worship your Father in the Spirit.  It’s one thing to say those things; it’s another to command it as forcefully as Needham does here.  But his voice, always soulful, reveals a heart that is just as guilty as ours.  Jimmy knows he has idols; “Clear the Stage” is how he purges them.  And he passionately invites us to join him.

*You know, where there are aliens who are secretly into R. Kelly and Pharrell.  These aliens aren’t interested in blowing up the White House.  But they might consider it if Jamie Foxx was president, since no one in the universe is a fan of “Blame It”.

**That’s Christian Contemporary Music for those of you who like good music.

Fifteen More Songs (in alphabetic order)
Anaïs Mitchell: “Young Man in America”
Bruce Springsteen: “Land of Hope and Dreams”
Frank Ocean: “Thinkin Bout You”
Icona Pop: “I Love It (feat. Charli XCX)”
Japandroids: “The House That Heaven Built”
Kacey Musgraves: “Merry Go ‘Round”
Kendrick Lamar: “B*tch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”
Matt Mays: “Indio”
Miguel: “Adorn”
The Olive Tree: “A Larger Portion”
Palma Violets: “Best of Friends”
Phosphorescent: “Song for Zula”
Propaganda: “Forgive Me for Asking”
Solange: “Losing You”
Taylor Swift: “I Knew You Were Trouble”

Top Songs of 2013 (So Far, in alphabetic order)

Ashley Monroe, “Like a Rose”: Kacey Musgraves took 2012 by force from her authentic country contemporaries, but Ashley Monroe owns 2013 so far with this clever, coming-of-age ballad.

Daft Punk, “Get Lucky (feat. Pharrell Williams)”: Robin Thicke thinks he reigned over summer 2013, and maybe officially he did.  But we all know who we’re bowing down to when Alan Thicke’s son isn’t looking, and they would never let Miley twerk all up on them.

David Ramirez, “The Bad Days”: His “Fire of Time” very nearly stole best song honors from Jimmy Needham in 2012; his “The Bad Days” is a dark horse contender for 2013.  And I’ll bet this blog is the only place you’ve heard of him; what a shame.

Justin Timberlake, “Mirrors”: The best pop song of the year, because JT so effortlessly fuses his pop-funk with weighty emotions that feel universal.

Vampire Weekend, “Diane Young”: Vampire Weekend are no strangers to great hooks, but this might be their most infectious and inventive one yet.