Retro Bummys: Best Albums of 2010

The reason for this 2010 Bummys season is simple: I hadn’t done one yet. Every year since I started college I had done a Top 10 movies and albums, starting with Facebook notes and transitioning to WordPress in 2012. Yet, somehow, some way, I skipped 2010. Honestly, I felt bad. One of the best years for music in recent memory, and I totally ignored all of 2010’s texts, tweets, and Facebook messages. It probably had something to do with 2010 being a terrible year for movies. Oh well.

Anyway, I needed to make amends. The Best Albums Bummys were the hardest; I count so many albums from 2010 in my favorites. The fact that Big Boi, Broken Social Scene, Jars of Clay, Jimmy Needham, Local Natives, and Vampire Weekend were all left out of the Top Ten was a complete shock to me. But 2010 killed in the album department. Terrible year for movies. Wonderful year for music.

Links in the albums’ titles are to streaming services, mostly Spotify.

Top Ten

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10. The Wild Hunt by The Tallest Man on Earth: Few albums elicit as much joy from me as The Wild Hunt. This Swedish folk troubadour has such a love for the effects of simple music. It showed on his break-through album in his unforgettable yelp and his first-rate finger-pickin’.

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9. High Violet by The National: And so began the rock critics’ switching of allegiances from dad-rock to sad-rock, two terms that completely devalued what The National did on High Violet. It was easy to overlook the balance they struck between self-serious and self-deprecating, since the music sounded so serious. But High Violet is full of insightful commentary on middle-age life with its own brand of humor.

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8. The Guitar Song by Jamey Johnson: If you don’t like county, you probably wouldn’t have liked The Guitar Song, because this was a lot of country. The Guitar Song was 2 discs and 25 tracks of hard-boiled, deep-fried country music. Jamey Johnson always made country music for his fans and not for the radio, so his songs were actually about real life- hence, songs with titles like “Can’t Cash My Checks”, “Heaven Bound”, and “California Riots”.

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7. Astro Coast by Surfer Blood: It’s impossible to talk about Surfer Blood now without mention of their frontman’s accusations of domestic violence. The story was appalling and has colored all the music they’ve made since. But this album of perfectly calibrated pop rock can’t be sullied; I have too many fond memories of marveling over the riffs and clever lyrics.

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6. Beautiful Things by Gungor: Gungor rose into prominence around the time that David Crowder Band was struggling for a new direction to take worship music after having cemented themselves in the genre’s firm foundation. DCB had a knack for melody unparalleled until Gungor, whose songwriting abilities were matched by their willingness to push the instrumentation into the outer limits of the genre’s reach. They pushed farther on their next record, but Beautiful Things was when it became clear they were providing new ways to worship God.

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5. Counting Stars by Andrew Peterson: This was music at its simplest but most powerful. Peterson was content to remain within a certain stylistic framework, and he milked it for all its potential elegance. He didn’t reach as far as he would two years later on Light for the Lost Boy, but he hints at it on “The Reckoning” and “You Came So Close”, filling out maybe the most beautiful album of the year. He received a lot of attention for the album from Christian publications, but somehow he remains underrated. For me, Counting Stars made Andrew Peterson one of my top three favorite musicians.

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4. Brothers by The Black Keys: The Black Keys have gotten so good at what they do, their last few records have almost sounded bored. That wasn’t a problem with Brothers. Brothers was the sound of master surfers riding the biggest wave of their lives without ever wiping out. Their professionalism was matched only by their populism, filling their best album with hook after brilliant hook. Even more impressive, they were able to equally modulate their prowess across speeds, from the slow “Everlasting Light” to the speedy singles “Tighten Up” and “Howlin’ for You”.

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3. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West: Well, at least he was self-aware. And I use the term loosely, since VMA-gate seemed to belie a complete lack of self-awareness. At the very least, he’s self-aware enough to know that he’s dark and twisted and egotistical enough to assume that his fantasies are beautiful. But all three adjectives are appropriate- this is a dark and twisted album, full of confessionals that would make an NFL player blush. And it’s also beautiful, full of the kind of music even geniuses only get one chance in their lifetime to make.

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2. The Suburbs by Arcade Fire: Arcade Fire are a huge band, both in numbers and in ambition. Even a throwaway song like “Empty Room” was wall-to-wall sound. Arcade Fire had already waged war on the suburbs before in both Funeral and Neon Bible, so naming their third album The Suburbs may have seemed redundant, but it actually functioned more as a purging. On The Suburbs, Butler and his band poured out all the pain of growing older and coming of age in emotionless environments. It’s no wonder Reflektor sounds looser and freer; they buried all their demons on The Suburbs.

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1. The Monitor by Titus Andronicus: The pinnacle of emo and the peak of pop-punk, even though Titus Andronicus would probably deny those labels while pissing in your face. In 2010, when I was facing life after undergrad, these songs became my anthems- internal anthems, since I wouldn’t advise singing these out loud on the bus or anywhere else public. The profanity alone would get you thrown out of restaurants, not to mention the anxious existentialism that would depress everyone around you. A concept album that framed a young man’s migration from Jersey to Boston loosely within Civil War imagery, The Monitor managed to be both full of fun and totally angsty at the same time. With my graduation from OU pending, The Monitor provided me with a rock opera worth rolling my windows down and belting, as if I didn’t have to care about anything.

Another Fifteen (alphabetical by artist)

Into the Morning by Ben Rector: His style will never garner much critical attention, but to those of us who have submitted to his easy-going affect, Ben Rector means nothing less than bliss, and this was his most blissful album.

Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty by Big Boi: Big Boi showed off why he was every much Andre’s equal when it comes to his flow and that he was nearly as off-the-wall with his production choices.

Forgiveness Rock Record by Broken Social Scene: Criminally overlooked that year, Broken Social Scene were known for their status as a collective of indie rock minds, and the variety on Forgiveness Rock Record is a testament to that- it could have been messy, but the range comes off more generous than anything else.

Thank Me Later by Drake: I’d forgotten how many hit-worthy songs were on this album, but it makes sense, since Thank Me Later was far more commercially inclined than Drake’s next two releases, proving that he could do mainstream rap as well as or better than anyone.

American Slang by The Gaslight Anthem: Not as appealingly hangdog as their first album, The ’59 Sound, but its more polished sheen didn’t take away from the sense that the band was still telling real stories.

One Life Stand by Hot Chip: Electronic nerd-pop shouldn’t be my thing, but this record totally was.

The ArchAndroid by Janelle Monáe: R&B has become one of my favorite genres, which I think you can trace back to this album. It opened my eyes to the lack of limits within the style.

The Shelter by Jars of Clay: Albums based around high-profile collaborations are usually boring, low-risk affairs, but The Shelter was a joyous, highly-listenable affair. Jars of Clay kept up their streak of defying expectations.

Nightlights by Jimmy Needham: I prefer Needham’s earlier, more stripped-down records, but Nightlights is chock-full of songs that should have been hits on Christian radio, if we lived in a world without the Fall.

This Is Happening by LCD Soundsystem: More inscrutable than their universally-beloved Sound of SilverThis Is Happening was nevertheless a worthy final statement for the great electronic band.

Gorilla Manor by Local Natives: Before Gorilla Manor, indie rock was just a genre that sounded cool, but Local Natives’ debut included a lot of songs that touched a nerve in my 21-year-old self.

Body Talk by Robyn: Robyn’s brand of robo-pop has been severely missed since she rocked the known world with Body Talk.

The Age of Adz by Sufjan Stevens: Sufjan was never a normal dude, but he went all in on weirdo with Age of Adz, nevertheless making beautiful, meaningful songs with everything and the kitchen sink.

Contra by Vampire Weekend: So far, Vampire Weekend still hasn’t eclipsed the sunny blast of indie-pop from their self-titled debut, but Contra got real close.

Gemini by Wild Nothing: Wild Nothing’s Gemini had a blazed-out nostalgia to it that hooked me and continues to stir up wistful emotions even today.

Future Top Tens

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

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Retro Bummys: Best Songs of 2010

2010 was a formative year in music for me. I was enduring the after-effects of a breakup, entering my senior year, and traveling to Italy that summer, all while discovering what kinds of music I really liked. You can tell from this list that my musical taste wasn’t as diversified as it is now (45 different artists from last year’s top 50 songs, versus 36 from 2010). I held tightly to the bands I loved and the albums that defined my life that year.

Links to audio streaming or videos are in the song titles.

[Disclaimer: There’s probably profanity in a lot of these songs.]

Another Twenty-Five

50. “Beautiful Things” by Gungor
49. “To Old Friends and New” by Titus Andronicus
48. “Confirmation” by Wild Nothing
47. “Desire Lines” by Deerhunter
46. “On Melancholy Hill” by Gorillaz
45. “The Hangover (feat. Mikey Rocks)” by Curren$y
44. “White Dress” by Ben Rector
43. “Sun Hands” by Local Natives
42. “A More Perfect Union” by Titus Andronicus
41. “In the Night My Hope Lives On” by Andrew Peterson
40. “All Day Day Light” by The Morning Benders
39. “Light of Day” by Jimmy Needham
38. “Dancing on My Own” by Robyn
37. “Twin Peaks” by Surfer Blood
36. “Dry Bones” by Gungor
35. “Giving Up the Gun” by Vampire Weekend
34. “What’s My Name? (feat. Drake)” by Rihanna
33. “Small Rebellions (feat. Brandon Heath)” by Jars of Clay
32. “Feel It All Around” by Washed Out
31. “Hang with Me” by Robyn
30. “National Anthem (F**k the World)” by Freddie Gibbs
29. “Super Bass” by Nicki Minaj
28. “All Creatures of Our God and King” by Patty Griffin
27. “When I’m with You” by Best Coast
26. “Shine Blockas (feat. Gucci Mane)” by Big Boi

Top 25 Songs

25. “The Reckoning (How Long)” by Andrew Peterson: The veteran singer-songwriter’s most triumphant ode to the tension between this life and the next.

24. “Howlin’ for You” by The Black Keys: Nothing about this song was complicated, or even lyrically coherent, and thank goodness for that- we need mindless anthems in this crazy world.

23. “City with No Children” by Arcade Fire: Win Butler lamented the abundance of hypocrites in his world, as well as the possibility that he may have been among them.

22. “Hurricane J” by The Hold Steady: Heaven Is Whenever was dismissed, and this song along with it, even though it was a prime example of the dizzying heights this band was capable of even when embracing more mainstream rock templates.

21. “Macon” by Jamey Johnson: Combining Johnson’s Alabama drawl with Muscle-Shoals-channeling backup singers turned out to be a pretty great move for the alt-country bigshot.

20. “I Can Change” by LCD Soundsystem: For all the attention LCD Soundsystem got for their production, it was the calisthenics from James Murphy’s voice that usually elevated their songs into emotional nirvana, especially on this dynamic single off their last album.

19. “Heaven’s on Fire” by The Radio Dept.: I used to think the pretentious Thurston Moore quote that opened this song served as its thesis statement, but, listening now, the rest of the song seems to laugh it off by dropping some acid out back of the restaurant on its break. Turns out the youths don’t care one way or the other about the “bogus capitalist process”.

18. “Moving to Zion” by Jimmy Needham: I’ll follow Needham’s golden voice anywhere, but he made it easy with this funky declaration of intent to make his home in Christ.

17. “The Suburbs” by Arcade Fire: As clear a mission statement as you would have found on an album, “The Suburbs”, which opened the album of the same name, set up Arcade Fire’s Grammy-winning record as an epic, band-defining lament.

16. “Un-Thinkable (I’m Ready)” by Alicia Keys: The spiritual cousin to Usher’s “Climax”. Keys’s voice sounds like butter spread over just the right amount of bread.

15. “King of Spain” by The Tallest Man on Earth: After listening to this Swedish folk song, who didn’t think they could be anything they wanted?

14. “Who Knows Who Cares” by Local Natives: When I discovered this song in 2010, I was in a big period of transition, and Local Natives’ cinematic embrace of aimlessness hit me right where I lived.

13. “Tightrope (feat. Big Boi)” by Janelle Monáe: Even four years later, this song feels like the future of R&B.

12. “F**k You” by Cee-Lo Green: There’s no denying its vulgarity, but the explicit version is the better, funnier song than the comparably toothless “Forget You” (Ain’t that some shit?).

11. “Four Score and Seven” by Titus Andronicus: An appropriate microcosm for the brilliance of Titus Andronicus’s entire record, The Monitor, with a slow, elegiac first act followed by a rip-roaring second, repeating, “It’s still us against them!” which might as well be the band’s motto.

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10. “Swim” by Surfer Blood: Guitar-driven power-pop has fallen out of style since Surfer Blood’s bruising debut. Maybe that’s because no one’s written anything with quite the killer hook as “Swim” and its unbeatable chorus.  Effortless optimism is a tough vibe to pull off in indie rock, but Surfer Blood nailed it with “Swim”.

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9. “Bloodbuzz Ohio” by The National: I couldn’t tell you what some of the specific things in this song mean- like, what’s a “bloodbuzz”? Or why were bees carrying Matt Berninger to the Midwest? But I could certainly tell you that the malaise that permeates every inch of this song deeply affected me in 2010 even at the ripe old age of 21.

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8. “Power” by Kanye West: Remember when people said ‘Ye was just a great producer and not a great rapper? Well, he’d already proven his flow before “Power”, but “Power” was the moment his acumen became undeniable, his lyrical prowess proved to be unbeatable, and his one-liners were unstoppable. West’s assertion that “no one man should have all that power” was obviously self-referential, but in hindsight maybe that chorus was a cry for help from a man who couldn’t handle his own genius.

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7. “The Earth Is Yours” by Gungor: In light of Gungor’s recent bend toward the emergent church, it’s refreshing to look back on their explicitly worshipful music from Beautiful Things. “The Earth Is Yours” particularly stood out, because it’s an experimental rock song in a conventional worship song’s skin. Where David Crowder Band had already sharpened the edges of worship music’s box, Gungor had just begun to tip the box over and pour its contents out.

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6. “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” by Arcade Fire: Most of my other favorite Arcade Fire songs are the big, brash rock songs: “Wake Up”, “No Cars Go”, “Keep the Car Running”. But “Sprawl II” is more subtle, taking its time through its chorus, allowing The Suburbs to reach its emotional climax through Régine’s voice rather than Win’s. It doesn’t leave much room for hope in the tightness of its production, but Régine’s pleading for darkness wins me over every time.

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5. “World Sick” by Broken Social Scene: Apparently everyone forgot about Broken Social Scene once Leslie Feist left, but they quietly released one of the best records of 2010, leading off with one of the best songs of 2010. “World Sick” was epic, both in length and depth. It was almost seven minutes long, but it earned that running time with several well-constructed musical movements and a chorus that sounded like a legitimate cry for help. Kevin Drew claiming that he gets “world sick” whenever he takes a stand was a poignant way of pointing out that something wasn’t quite right with a world where hearts are broken every day. The angry guitar flurries that back him up on that line seemed to agree, and the song ended in skittering drums and whispering guitars, allowing its sentiment to sink in.

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4. “Runaway (feat. Pusha T)” by Kanye West: The song that ends up standing for West’s legacy better than any other doesn’t seem like it should include more of Kanye’s singing than his rapping, but this was the world we lived in back in 2010. Look, there were a lot of reasons to hate this song: ‘Ye’s singing voice, its blatant vulgarity, West’s apparent lack of repentance. But it would be hard to argue that “Runaway” wasn’t the perfect summation of the entire Kanye West ethos. For a man who elevated his career to the next level by being unflinchingly honest, “Runaway” was the pinnacle. That doesn’t give him a free pass for all his faults, but it’s worth at least something that he was able to confess them so effectively.

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3. “Dance with Me Baby” by Ben Rector: It’s telling that Ben Rector’s best song was also his least produced. Of course, I’m biased- I sang this song to my wife when I proposed to her. But I legitimately think this was a perfect song apart from my connection to it. From the opening, off-the-cuff piano chord to the sparse arrangement to the warm lyrics, Rector had never been better. He’ll never get attention from the mainstream media, but with “Dance with Me Baby” he showed he didn’t need it; he was going to make great music regardless.

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2. “Take It In” by Hot Chip: You know those movie images of heaven with billowing clouds and angelic sunlight streaming through? That’s what I feel like when I listen to this song. Hot Chip are just a bunch of nerdy guys, but they found a way to make the simplest of sentiments hold so much more weight. The verses were dark, bouncy affairs, conveying insecurity and uncertainty. Then the choruses kicked in, and we were sailing in the sky, eternally secure in the arms of love.

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1. “Dancing in the Minefields” by Andrew Peterson: Again, I’m biased: I sang this to my wife at our wedding. 2010 was a good year for songs that had to do with my marriage (No. 39 up there was the song playing when Vicky walked down the aisle). The DJ at our wedding helped me plan out when I was going to sing during the reception  as a surprise for Vicky. I ran into him at an event at OU a month or so after our wedding. He still had the song in his computer, so he played it for me randomly. It all came rushing back to me- not necessarily the romance of the event or the great dance party our DJ threw for us at the reception or even the moment when I got to kiss my bride for the first time. What I was reminded of was the heaviness of the promise I had made to my bride, to love her well for the rest of our life together. I knew I’d inevitably fail at carrying this out, that I would eventually turn out to be a bad husband. But that’s why I chose this song to sing: it’s a reminder that the promise is the thing that matters. God created marriage not as a testament to the power of romantic love to carry you through all things, but as an image of covenant, an image of His commitment to us. Is there any song that communicates that more fully than “Dancing in the Minefields”?

Future Top Tens

2013

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

2012

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

2011

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

Music City, Texas: A Night of Conversations

I didn’t know what my wife and I were getting into as we drove to Linden, Texas, which, as we found out the day of, was in fact much closer to Texarkana than to Plano, where we were staying with my parents.  The towns were getting progressively smaller and the roads progressively bumpier.  We were on our way to see one of my favorite artists, Andrew Peterson, in a show as a part of his In the Round Tour, with Sara Groves and Bebo Norman.  Vicky turned to me and said, “Why are they doing a show out here?”

Well, as we soon found out, it’s because Linden is Music City, TX.  Didn’t you know?

The show itself was wonderfully low-key.  The three artists spent the whole show onstage together, and from the get-go they described the event as a conversation happening between them, the masters of their craft, and us, their enraptured audience.  That subdued atmosphere allowed the three of them space to talk about the songs they sang and played, to share the stories behind them and the stories that connected them as brothers and sisters in Christ.  All three started in the business around the same time in the 1990s and toured together off and on, sharing some of the same personnel along the way.  Over the years, if their banter onstage is any indication, Peterson, Groves, and Norman have cultivated an artist community that any church should covet for its own creatives.

If the interplay between the three musicians as conversationalists was uplifting and encouraging, the music was just as enriching.  All three have folk sensibilities inherent in their songwriting, but there’s enough of a difference between them all that the “in the round” style (they traded off songs for most of the night, though they often assisted on their instruments or with vocals) never got tedious.  Bebo Norman was the artist that I was perhaps the least familiar with, which is ironic since he’s by far the most popular.  I enjoyed his songs and his “cool, raspy voice”, as Peterson called it, but I was held in thrall by Sara Groves and Peterson.  I’ve only recently begun to delve into Groves’s discography, and I’ve quickly fallen for the combination of her ethereal voice and her grounded lyrics.  And Peterson is one of my heroes, a man who so fully imbues his craft with the weight and freedom of the Gospel.  However, as the night went on, it was becoming more and more apparent to me that I was seeing something special beyond just Peterson.

I found that the three of them were validating art as an expression of the Gospel.  Art so often falls on one end of the spectrum or the other, either relentlessly avoidant of or in opposition to religion and Christianity in particular, or blandly ignorant of the realities of the world while aiming for reverent worship.  But art, and music in particular for me, is capable of covering so much more ground.  These three artists in particular don’t conform to Christian music as a whole; they write about the world we live in from the perspective of a child of God.  Sara Groves put it well, quoting a friend of hers: “God is an ocean, and we keep writing songs about the same cup of water.”  I was grateful to have experienced two and half hours of live music that spanned the ocean.

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.

Light for the Lost Boy by Andrew Peterson

Two years ago, Peterson released his best album yet, Counting Stars, a beautiful folk masterpiece about, among other things, the fulfillment of a life lived in the grace of God.  He’s been very consistent over the years, releasing 10 or so albums and collections since 1996, and there’s not a bad one in the lot*.  His music is easy-going, intelligent, and after God’s heart.

Remarkably, there’s been very little change in Peterson’s sound after 16 years in the business.  And there was no need to change it, especially not after the peak that was Counting Stars.  He could’ve gone on making the same old thing, and he still would have been one of the best musicians in the business.  But this September, Andrew Peterson released an album that wasn’t merely a change in his sound but an enhancement of it.  He’s surpassed himself and made one of the best albums of the year.

It’s still folk music, to be sure, and it’s not as if Peterson was ever constrained by his genre.  The folk** sound worked for him, and he flourished in it.  But Light for a Lost Boy, his newest album, is a work made by a man who has decided to try expressing himself in more ways than just the old ones.  You can hear it first on the second song, “The Cornerstone,” more ambient, otherworldly than Peterson’s old songs.  He’s altered his voice somehow too, and the song itself is simply bolder in its lyrical declarations about Christ.  Peterson’s boldness fits with the harder-hitting electric guitars, as opposed to his usual acoustic strumming.

And there are changes like this all over.  The last song, “Don’t You Want to Thank Someone,” is a 10-minute epic, awash in instrumentation.  “The Voice of Jesus” is a lullaby upon which a quiet, childish female voice accompanies Peterson in the background.  It’s almost like minimalist indie- the xx would be proud.

Now lots of bands change their sound, but Peterson’s changes on Lost Boy carry a lot of meaning.  They’re accompanied by a change in themes.  Andrew Peterson has always been a champion of the everyman, but he’s generally had a laid back style, almost a certain amount of peace with the things he writes about in his lyrics, a contentment.  But Lost Boy sounds more unsettled.  Maybe Peterson, who has always been honest and real, has finally found the perfect sound to express the complications that were always inside him.  “Carry the Fire,” as inspired as its lyrics are, is besieged by the notion that forces will try to quench the fire.  “Day by Day” is a driving, willful acceptance of one’s temporary imperfection in the face of sanctification.  Even the lead single, “Rest Easy,” is about trying to calm the unquenchable desire of the flesh to work for one’s salvation.

Peterson has always made me think of James Taylor and Rich Mullins***, and he’s excelled at sounding like them, but this if the first album that he sounds all of his own.  The album’s title may hold some keys to the changes we hear on it.  Peterson seems to be opening up about his lostness and dealing with it through the notes and word of Lost Boy.  In the end, he reminds us (and himself, I suspect) of the hope, the light.  I need that reminder.  Thankfully, I never cease to be reminded of my hope, because I can’t stop listening to this album.

*Except for Slugs & Bugs & Lullabies, but I’m going out on a limb and saying that was made for people a little younger than me.

**I’m not entirely sure it’s considered folk music, actually.  It’s simple and often elegant, but not always acoustic, so…I don’t know.

***Both of which were kings of their genres, so it’s definitely high praise.

Done in London, or What Do I Do Now?

“And I long to go there,
I can feel the truth.
I can hear the promise
Of the angels of the moon.

This is a far country, a far country,
Not my home.”

-Andrew Peterson, “The Far Country”

I came to a realization this morning, one that staggered my soul and punctured the deep vibrancy of my young heart.  Be forewarned- this is not easy news to hear.

The Olympics are over.

Now I won’t pretend to be obsessed with the Olympics, but they were certainly more than just something to have on the TV while I talk to my roommates or fiancée.  For one thing, now that I am a full time NBA fanatic, I relished the chance to catch some more high-quality basketball from the Dream Team Lite*.  Though I would hardly call every game high-class drama, the gold-medal game certainly lived up to its hype.  It was a nail-biter until the last minute, and, though the commentators certainly gave the award to Lebron (19 pts, 7 rbds), its best player was none other than Kevin Durant (30 pts, 9 rbds).  That will never make up for a lost championship, but it certainly can give any Thunder fan hope for the future.

Not only did I quench some latent basketball cravings, but I exposed myself to some sports I would never watch otherwise, and ostensibly expanded my horizons, which should tide me over for another four years on volleyball, swimming, track and field, and gymnastics, not to mention rowing, steeple chasing, sprint walking, and diving**.

I ooh-ed and ah-ed with the world at Michael Phelps’ apparent invincibility.  Sure, he didn’t win all gold this Olympics, and Lochte beat him once, but how many golds does Lochte have?  5?  Exactly.  I fell in love with Gabby Douglas along with everyone else, and I was crestfallen when the men lost and elated when the women won.  I was enthralled by volleyball, both beach and inside, and I watched our men fall apart (both beach and inside) and our girls dominate, even if we only pulled out the gold (and the silver!) in beach volleyball.  In indoor volleyball, even poor Destinee Hooker couldn’t spike us to the gold against Brazil.

Something interesting happens to Americans during the Olympics.  First of all, there are only four countries in the world that cared about the medal count this Olympics: China, Russia, Great Britain, and us.  China probably cared the most about it, if only because they care about everything more.  I would say Russia cared, if only from the desire to reclaim some vestige of lost glory, except I think the average Russian doesn’t give a hoot about that.  They probably cared about it the least.  The Brits- well, obviously.  It was in London.  They’d be crazy not to want a better showing than usual, and I’m happy to say they got it.  But why do Americans care?  Does winning the medal count mean our American athletes wanted it more or worked harder or are genetically superior to Chinese athletes?  Does it mean our American spirit is stronger or that democracy is better than communism?  Does it mean America is better?  No, it means none of those things.  Maybe the medal count says we put more of our resources into athletic activities than any other country.  And that’s about it.

I cheered U-S-A just as much as the next patriot, but the constant obsession of the media over the medal count doesn’t make any sense.  What interests me far more are the individual stories, and not necessarily the inspirational ones.  Gabby Douglas has a great story, but aren’t Tyson Gay and Justin Gatlin more interesting?  Don’t you want to redeem themselves?  Let Gabby see some disappointment and I’ll cheer for her even harder.  Michael Phelps’s 8 golds in 2008 was amazing, but the story became immediately more interesting when everyone thought Ryan Lochte was going to beat him but fell short.  Poor Lochte didn’t stand a chance against Phelps, who turned out to be so much more than just a fluke.  How does a guy like Lochte handle being second best when everyone expected him to hit it big time this year?

I love America, but I wonder if our focus isn’t a little skewed during the Olympics.  The freedom we have in America is beautiful and God-given, but America isn’t my home.  There is a country far greater in store for me.  My focus should be on people, not on a faux glory that will fade within the next few days only to be challenged again in Rio*** in four more years.  That doesn’t mean I’m not going to cheer for America in 2016; I will, just not in the same way. Instead of cheering for our country, I’ll cheer for our people.  That’s more important.

*Especially since three of them play for the Thunder (KD, Russ, The Beard), two of them are the best players of their respective generations (Kobe, Lebronze), two are an offense’s worst nightmare (Iggy, Chandler), one of them has the cutest kid and happens to be both a stand-up guy and the best point guard in the league (CP3), one of them decided not to play with the Mavs (D-Will), one of them has no redeemable characteristics in the NBA yet plays his heart out in international play (Melo), one of them has a unibrow (Anthony Davis), and one of them is white (Kevin Love).

**Which wins the award for worst sport to watch on TV, since the only thing I’m capable of judging is the size of the splash.  Gymnastics is hard for me to judge as well, but gymnastics also had this.

***Btw, I cannot WAIT to see the opening ceremony in Rio.  British culture is far too familiar to me to wow me the way Beijing’s ceremony did in 2008.  The next one will be in South America?  In one of the coolest cities ever?  In a language that’s not Spanish, in a culture I know next to nothing about?  It’s going to be awesome.  Just you wait.