Going Electric (Or Not)

For some reason, in our culture of pop music, plugging or unplugging one’s guitar in is seen as a statement. Artists have been vilified if they plugged in at the wrong time or idolized if they unplugged and opened up. No genre is free of this phenomenon- consider these instances of unplugging: Springsteen was praised for recording parts of Nebraska in his bedroom, some people think Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged set was better than any of their studio albums, and Yeezus got some of the best reviews of Kanye’s storied career even while his more mainstream fans pretend it doesn’t exist. Going electric has its own famous and infamous stories, the most notorious, of course, being Dylan getting booed at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, after having been the standard-bearer for folk music since 1961.

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Plugging in proved more than effective for the newest Tallest Man on Earth album, Dark Bird Is Home. The Tallest Man on Earth is the stage name of Kristian Matsson, a Swedish folk troubadour who burst on the scene in 2008 with his debut album, Shallow Grave, amidst a flurry of finger-picking and vocals endlessly compared to Dylan. He outdid himself in 2010 with The Wild Hunt, one of 2010’s best albums, building on the whimsy of the first into a consistently celebratory sound. 2012’s There’s No Leaving Now was disappointingly frail-sounding, but his distinctive voice remained a worthy listen. On all his albums, you felt you were receiving a privileged glimpse inside the mind of a recluse.

Calling what Matsson does on Dark Bird “plugging in” isn’t necessarily accurate, but it’s the same principle. He’s filled out his acoustic guitar with minimalist production in the past, most notably on Wild Hunt’s “Kids on the Run”. But he’s never been this committed to it. All the songs on Dark Bird feature some sort of production supporting Matsson’s guitar, whether it’s a backup choir, ethereal synths, or hi-hats, and some songs don’t have Matsson finger-picking at all. Counterintuitively, 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. 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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When Dylan plugged in, though, the results weren’t quite as well-received. In retrospect, we tend to see the folks at Newport as narrow-minded and stuck in the past, but that’s only because “Like a Rolling Stone” has the benefit of fifty years of being one of the greatest songs of all time. Maybe that’s a good sign for Mumford and Sons, whose newest album, Wilder Mind, marks their first move away from the banjo-inflected folk-rock they produced on their first two albums. Maybe with the benefit of hindsight fifty years from now, Mumford and Sons’ move away from folk rock will be seen as brave and revolutionary. Maybe we’ll hail Marcus Mumford as a genius for seeing the new direction rock music was heading. Maybe.

Then again, maybe not. Dylan had the benefit of still being Dylan, the greatest wordsmith of the rock and roll era. Marcus Mumford, while a good lyricist on Sigh No More and Babel, seems to have lost his flair for striking imagery with the move to generic rock and roll. Perhaps sounding like every other rock band was too time-consuming provide the music with above-average lyrics. Regardless of why Mumford decided their new style didn’t need anything better than “It’s in my blood, it’s in my water / You try to tame me, tame me from the start” or “And I rage and I rage / But perhaps I will come of age / And be ready for you”, this whole gambit probably wouldn’t have worked anyway, since the reason they found so much popularity in the first place was directly related to their banjo. No one was under the illusion that Mumford and Sons were cool, but they found a way to make the banjo cool, and that was enough for two albums worth of good songs. I understand not wanting to be defined by the folk movement they came to represent, but there’s something to be said for knowing your lane. If they’re too cool for their banjos now, they’re not good enough for me.

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If Wilder Mind has an inverse, it’s Sufjan Stevens’s Carrie & Lowell. While Stevens doesn’t exactly unplug, he strips his sound down considerably, especially after 2010’s Age of Adz, his last proper album and the most influenced by electronic music. The glitches and beep-boops of Age of Adz were in sharp contrast to his most famous album, 2005’s Illinois, a masterpiece of folk and indie pop. Stevens had the rare ability to shift dramatically from stark, emotional acoustic songs to triumphant, twee opuses without butchering the album’s effect as a whole. There were glimpses of Stevens at his most bare-boned in somber tracks like “Casimir Pulaski Day” or “John Wayne Gacy Jr.” or even on his Christmas EPs, which tend to treat the holiday’s hymns with reverence.

Nothing really prepared us for Carrie & Lowell though. Totally abandoning his more symphonically twee impulses, Carrie & Lowell is an album made up entirely of Sufjan’s voice and his guitar. His voice is often layered and given occasional harmonies, and he adds effects to his guitar throughout the course of the album, but it’s a naked album nonetheless. 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. It’s a small price to pay to experience such an intimate album.

In the future, all three of these albums will be seen as crucial transition points for these artists. None of them are as volatile as when Dylan played “Maggie’s Farm” and “Like a Rolling Stone” at Newport in 1965 or perhaps as memorable as Nirvana covering David Bowie on MTV. But we live in a different time in which music doesn’t define our culture as prominently as it did even 20 years ago. We’re spread thinly over airwaves and gigabytes, and three folk artists diverging from their usual sound so drastically doesn’t capture the nation’s hearts and minds the way it used to. The unwritten rules about plugging or unplugging your guitar are muted, but very much still present.

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Career Best: Bruce Springsteen’s Best Albums

One of my favorite days so far this year was the day in May that I got to see Bruce Springsteen in concert. Vicky was unable to come due to a misunderstanding at the hotel with our dog, so I went by myself. Not the ideal situation, but it was the best we could do at the time. I sat next to a couple from New Jersey and a couple from Alabama. We all chatted about college football and where we were from and how many Springsteen concerts we had been to. But there wasn’t any chatting after the music started.

It was the best concert experience I’ve ever had. I wasn’t very close to the stage, but Springsteen and the E Street Band are experts at playing to a crowd. But it’s not just that they put on a good show. It has far more to do with my own personal relationship with his music and getting to spend 3 hours with a huge group of people celebrating everything great about it together.

It’s a shame Vicky couldn’t be there. You should share the things you love. That’s why I do these Career Best posts. I love Bruce Springsteen’s music, and I want to share it with you. Why only 6 albums? I dunno. He has 18 studio albums, so I divided that by 3. You’re getting one third of Springsteen’s entire oeuvre. Enjoy.springsteenalbums16. The River (1980): It’s easy to overlook The River, sandwiched between his classic ‘70s albums and his reinventing ‘80s records. But The River was a reinvention of its own, moving away from the wall of sound that characterized Born to Run and Darkness to a style more suitable to Buddy Holly or Chuck Berry. The River truly rocks, with Springsteen hitting his stride on upbeat paeans to young love such as “Fade Away” and “Sherry Darlin”. But, as a double album, The River has more than enough room for somber reflection in songs like “The River” and “Stolen Car”. This was Bruce Springsteen flexing and finding he had room to grow.

springsteenalbums25. Born in the U.S.A. (1984): This is when Springsteen “went commercial”, a phrase that is as nasty to Boss purists as “went electric” was at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. But it’s hogwash. The vast majority of Born in the U.S.A. is the same roots-driven rock Springsteen was churning out at a professional pace in the decade before Nebraska. There are only a few songs that bear the marks of the ‘80s: “Downbound Train”, which like his typical rock songs in every other way, is layered over subtle synths; “Dancing in the Dark” is Springsteen fully embracing the ‘80s’ worst trends and, in fact, redeeming them; and “I’m on Fire” dives into synth-pop to the point that it becomes a predecessor to shoegaze. No, just because Born in the U.S.A. sold millions of records doesn’t mean Springsteen “went commercial”. He grew into this record, and it caught on at precisely the right time.

springsteenalbums34. Nebraska (1982): The opening song of Nebraska is a tune called, fittingly, “Nebraska”, and after the utter bleakness on that track, you’re ready for Dust-Bowl-level sparse on the rest of the album. That isn’t quite the case. There are several songs that have at least a modicum of upbeat in them, like the relatively rollicking “Atlantic City” and the somewhat rocking “Open All Night” and…okay, you’re right. Every song is pretty depressing. But Springsteen reached an authenticity on Nebraska that he’s never since come close to replicating.

springsteenalbums43. Wrecking Ball (2012): Arguably the best of the Boss’s later albums. After a slump in the 1990s, Springsteen rediscovered his roots on The Rising and on folk-based albums Devils & Dust and We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Session. Since then, he has not been shy about the causes his albums are stumping for. Magic was an indictment of the Bush era, Working on a Dream was an optimist’s boasting after Obama’s election, and Wrecking Ball is the comedown record set in our economy’s dog years. It’s also the strongest since the ‘80s, mixing every style he’d attempted since The Rising and trying some new things, some of which worked (Irish drinking songs!) and some which didn’t really work at all (Hip-hop!). But he maintains a consistent hopefulness in the face of the economic recession he knew was plaguing his fans, even while encouraging a patented defiance.

springsteenalbums52. Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978): It’s unfair that Darkness had to come after Born to Run. When you come out of the gate at such a lightning-fast pace, it’s going to be hard to maintain. But Springsteen and his E Street Band made up for it by doubling down on their sweeping aesthetic of hard rock mixed with story songs to create what is essentially Born to Run’s sequel and nearly its equal. If it doesn’t reach quite the emotional heights as Born to Run, we can chalk it up to chance. I mean, what are the odds you make two iconic records in a row? As it turned out, in the late 1970s, Springsteen beat the odds.

springsteenalbums61. Born to Run (1975): Born to Run isn’t Bruce Springsteen’s debut, but it feels way more like a statement of identity than the two albums before it. Early in his career, Springsteen wrote with a lot of specificity about Jersey, but his songs never made their rough-and-tumble nature seem anything but universal. If falling in love was like “She’s the One” in New Jersey, it was just as raw and potent everywhere else in America. If adolescence was like “Jungleland” in New Jersey, it was just as fraught and melodramatic everywhere else in America. And if the average youth in Jersey can feel as much hope for the future as “Born to Run”, so could the average youth anywhere else in America. Springsteen and the E Street Band took each of their skills to the limit to create that super-Spectorized sound that many have tried to imitate since then, the sound that came to be synonymous with growing up and trying to make good. Springsteen had already made good in 1975, but Born to Run stood for everyone who hadn’t.

Career Best: Bruce Springsteen’s Best Songs

Career Best is a feature in which I look back on the career of one of my favorite artists and walk through their best albums and songs. This week we’re taking a long look at the Boss.

25. “Dancing in the Dark”: I used to hate this song, and if I didn’t hate it, I at least thought it was among the Boss’s most overrated singles. But this perfect, synth-driven anthem to finding someone, anyone in between night shifts has grown on me. The incredible, ‘80s-defining video helps- a lot (in the link above).

24. “Blinded by the Light”: This song has found most of its popularity from the cover by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, which, incidentally, is also the version where it sounds like they say “revved up like a douche” instead of “revved up like a deuce”, so make of that what you will. The Springsteen version (which is the original, thank you very much) sounds about as different as you’d expect, more stripped down and rambling, which was typical of his early music. I still to this day have no earthly idea what the lyrics mean, but the chaos Springsteen weaves with his random words is somehow intoxicating.

23. “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town”: The most brilliant version of this song is the Jackson 5 cover, but there’s a special place in my three-sizes-too-small heart for Springsteen’s version. It’s got something to do with Springsteen being unable to contain his merriment at Clarence Clemons’s Santa laugh. The joy in this song is contagious, and it’s made all the more enjoyable when you realize it was recorded in 1975, early in Springsteen’s career, and the E Street Band sounds like they’re already in peak form.

22. “Glory Days”: It’s easy to look back at Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. days as the moment he left rock music behind and went all in on ‘80s overproduction and high hats and synths. And it’s not totally off, but there’s something glorious about Roy Bittan’s keyboard synths on “Glory Days”. The chords don’t come out perfect on every play, reminding you that there’s a human back there playing them, and setting a fitting backdrop for an ode to the washed up, middle-age people who are the backbone of our country.

21. “From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)”: If The River was meant to be a mix of solemn songs and songs that celebrate the joy of rock n’ roll, it’s a tragedy that “From Small Things” was left off. Few songs capture the joy in rock better than this one. The story is classic Springsteen, but maybe this would have been better off on Nebraska rather than The River, because the main character ends up being pretty twisted.

20. “Girls in Their Summer Clothes”: Hands down one of the most gorgeous songs Springsteen recorded. I suppose this could come off a bit creepy, but “Girls” instead sounds like a loving ode to the enjoyment of the female figure. I don’t think I made it sound any less creepy with that sentence, but give it a listen; Springsteen makes it far more about the passage of time than a man’s lust.

19. “I’m on Fire”: If you had to guess the most-covered Bruce Springsteen song, would “I’m on Fire” have even been in your top 5? It’s been redone at least 21 times, which is 12 more than the next tune. Artists from Tori Amos to Kenny Chesney to Chromatics have recorded this song, but the best version still belongs to the Boss.

18. “The Promised Land”: This was Springsteen at the peak of his powers, when even throwaway tracks could tear into your heart. It includes one of his favorite themes, the hope of the American dream clashing with American realities. It also includes one of the great Big Man solos, in the top five at least.

17. “Wrecking Ball”: “Wrecking Ball” is good enough to make me forget that it’s a song celebrating the stadium of the New York Giants. It (strangely effectively) doubles as a song about new beginnings. The defiance in “Wrecking Ball” has become a theme for Springsteen recently, as if Springsteen is warding off the haters who accuse him of phoniness.

16. “Stolen Car”: Springsteen does quietness better than any other rock star or group. For him, it’s not just about a different modulation; the quiet becomes him. On “Stolen Car”, his voice being barely above a whisper is a sign of his resignation that nothing about his life is going to change.

16. “Backstreets”: And we’ve finally reached our first Born to Run track! Who knows if Springsteen ever really knew what it was like to live his life hustling on the streets? Probably whoever wrote or has read his biography, but I haven’t, so I just have songs like this to utterly and completely convince me.

14. “The Rising”: “My City of Ruins” was the song that best encapsulated the post-9/11 mindset of New York, but “The Rising” was the nation’s. The imagery was powerful and intoxicating, this picture of pulling ourselves up out of the mire together. But it’s not just about the rising; Springsteen gave us a picture of the light we were rising to.

13. “She’s the One”: Hope you like Born to Run, because there’s a lot of it on this list. “She’s the One” isn’t about love at first sight, or even about pining away for some girl who fits your image of the ideal woman. “She’s the One” is the moment you decide to do something about it.

12. “The Wrestler”: Springsteen honed his Pete Seeger folk chops on albums like Devils & Dust and We Shall Overcome, and “The Wrestler” is the best version of that version of the Boss. Describing a character using powerful metaphors is one thing, but Springsteen sings as the man describing himself with such despondent images. This man is aware that he’s not worth much to the world, and fewer things cut closer to the bone.

11. “Nebraska”: Some of the finest harmonica ever put to vinyl. “Nebraska” is the centerpiece of the spare album Nebraska, and as such it enjoys the sparest of production. The song would float off into the wind, if it weren’t for the singer’s insistence that he doesn’t have a reason for why he killed that man, just that there’s a certain amount of unexplainable evil in the world.

springsteensongs110. “Land of Hope and Dreams”: Opening with a gospel choir would seem an admission of irrelevance on any other classic rock artist’s song. For Springsteen, though, it’s just one brushstroke on a vast canvas. Most of the rest of the songs on this list boast specificity as one of their defining qualities. “Land of Hope and Dreams” is huge and broad in scope as Springsteen invites sinners of all kinds to join him on the train to heaven. I can’t speak for where Springsteen’s heart is when it comes to the finer points of reformed theology, but, regardless, this is a pretty accurate assessment of what the elect will look like: just a bunch of ragamuffins.

springsteensongs29. “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)”: There was a point in my college career when I dated someone whose parents were not my biggest fans. I’ll admit that at the time I wasn’t the best boyfriend to their daughter, but I often leaned on “Rosalita” when it seemed like the deck was stacked against me. For me, it captured what it meant to be in love and to feel like it was you and your significant other against the world. Listening to “Rosalita” now, at my wisened age of 25, Springsteen sounds like a guy who’s undoubtedly immature, but he also sounds like a guy who one day may rule the world. Maybe Rosie’s parents should have given him the benefit of the doubt.

springsteensongs38. “Atlantic City”: For some reason, I had this idea of “Atlantic City” in my head as one of Bruce Springsteen’s overproduced, late ’80s songs, even though it’s on Nebraska. It doesn’t quite have the emptiness of “Nebraska”, but it’s still a song with a hole in its heart. There’s definitely a pop song somewhere on the edges of “Atlantic City”, and maybe if someone else had this song, they would’ve taken that chorus and made it more upbeat, along the lines of “Hungry Heart”. But in Springsteen’s voice, with the layered, ghostly harmony, “Atlantic City” is a lament.

springsteensongs47. “Long Walk Home”: Magic basically ensured that Bruce Springsteen would forever be appreciated by liberals, if Born in the U.S.A. hadn’t accomplished that 20 years prior. The album is a thinly veiled invective against the Bush administration. Seen in retrospect, it plays a little more subtly, especially since Springsteen’s tone hasn’t changed much since then, implying that the same problems we had then as a country are still in place today. “Long Walk Home” is the best argument for this, both a warning and a celebration. A warning that the way to a better country will be arduous, and a celebration that if any country can do it, it’s this one.

springsteensongs56. “The River”: It’s amazing I ever got married after listening to “The River”. This song has haunted me since high school. Springsteen has plenty of songs just like this one about marriages that lose their spark, but none have anything that pierce so quickly to the heart as the opening harmonica or the eerie chorus or the unforgettable line, “Now I act like I don’t remember / Mary act like she don’t care.” I did get married, though, so I obviously know “The River” isn’t the ultimate end for every marriage. And Springsteen knows that too, since he’s also married, but I will say that it would be surprising if you could listen to this song and not think of a marriage in your life that it reminds you of. Powerful stuff.

springsteensongs65. “Born in the U.S.A.”: Probably Bruce Springsteen’s most recognizable song, with the possible exception of “Dancing in the Dark”. Even the most pop-culture-ignorant person has heard the rousing chorus. It’s incredible that “Born in the U.S.A.” survived its run on the charts and its misuse by nearly every pseudo-patriotic politician to remain one of the best rock singles ever. By now, the song’s misunderstood nature is well-documented: written as an anti-Vietnam screed and as an ode to veterans and their struggles, the song has been blindly appropriated by different groups over and over again as an anthem. If you listen to the lyrics, only veterans could use this as an anthem. For the rest of us, “Born in the U.S.A.” is a reminder of the complexities of our nation’s history.

springsteensongs74. “Jungleland”: The E Street Band deserves much of the credit for reorienting popular music’s use of instruments beyond guitar, bass, and drums. “Jungleland” may be the song most responsible. It opens with an indelible violin solo, transitions into one of the most memorable piano riffs of the ‘70s, and climaxes with the most famous saxophone part in all of rock music. Forgive all my superlatives- you’ll understand when you listen. Every song on Born to Run is an epic story, but “Jungleland” is the epic story to end all epic stories. It’s hardly one of Springsteen’s more specific stories; instead, he opts for broad images of kids trying to make it out of the war zone that is adolescence. He uses every weapon at his disposal to get that feeling across. This is the E Street Band’s finest moment.

springsteensongs83. “Darkness on the Edge of Town”: The opening piano riff gives you the idea that this is going to be an R&B song in the style of Dusty Springfield or the Staples Singers. That funkiness hangs out around the core of “Darkness on the Edge of Town”, giving an edge to the chorus when Springsteen lets out his raspy howl. It’s another sad song disguised as a happy one, though maybe it’s time to stop trying to differentiate between sad and happy. “Darkness on the Edge of Town” does have a certain bleakness, dealing with broken dreams hiding in regular American towns. But the music doesn’t let you slip into a depression about it. It is what it is, and we’ll go on living.

springsteensongs72. “Thunder Road”: 10 appreciations.
10) The reference to Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely”.
9) That piano gets louder through the first verse- how often to you actually hear instrumentation crescendo like that anymore in pop music? It’s more immediate when it sounds live.
8) He wants her to go with him to “case the promised land.” Perfect line.
7) It ends with the line “It’s a town full of losers / And I’m pulling out of here to win”, which is a pretty succinct summary of every kid’s mindset when he/she leaves home for the first time.
6) I can’t tell if Springsteen is writing from the perspective of an older man or from the perspective of a young man who thinks he’s getting old. Like someone around the age of 25 who is still in the college mindset that anything above 22 is old.
5) That harmonica is the opening to my favorite album ever, and it never fails to excite me.
4) The second-greatest sax part in all rock music at the sprawling coda.
3) He had help from Elton and Billy, but Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” made piano rock cool.
2) When Springsteen tells her, “You ain’t a beauty, but, eh, you’re alright.”
1) The command to roll down the window to feel the wind, cementing this as the all-time greatest driving song.

springsteensongs91. “Born to Run”: It’s hard to write about my favorite song. I mean, I know you’re not going to love it as much as I do (unless you already do), and nothing I write is going to convince you to make it your favorite song. You don’t adopt anything as your favorite anything because you read something. It’s usually a lot more organic than that. I don’t have a story for why “Born to Run” is my favorite song- not just my favorite Bruce Springsteen song, but my favorite song period. Some people have reasons, I guess, for why they have a favorite song, some connection to their dad or an association with a cherished memory. I don’t have any of that. But I could write about 100 appreciations for “Born to Run” like the ones I wrote above for “Thunder Road”. I could list for you all the times I’ve been stressed out or down on myself or burnt out and listening to “Born to Run” reminded me of the hope that I have, the drive to live a full life. Even though my wife probably hates this song (I’m not sure there’s a Bruce Springsteen song she likes), I could point you to all the passionate lines in “Born to Run” that I look to as inspiration for how to love her well. I don’t consider myself a “tramp”, I couldn’t care less about cars, and I’ve never loved a girl named Wendy. But I have felt like a town is a “death trap”, and that I had to get out. I have enjoyed a kiss so much that I felt like I could die happy if it never ended. And I know what it’s like to long for someplace better, “that place where we really want to go and we’ll walk in the sun.”

January’s Notable Music

Hits

januarymusic1Against Me!, Transgender Dysphoria Blues: Let me start off by saying that this blog is not the place I want to enumerate my beliefs on transsexualism. I would prefer that to be a face-to-face conversation. I will mention that I am a Christian, and I strive to let the Bible and the Holy Spirit inform all my beliefs about gender issues of all kind. But Transgender Dysphoria Blues isn’t about beliefs or politics or sociology. On the most basic level, this album is about learning empathy. Laura Jane Grace (fka Tom Gabel) puts forth remarkable effort and strain to take us inside her mind to see (and experience with her) her wants and desires and how much they are restricted. She and her bandmates have also made Against Me!’s best record, and one of the best rock records I’ve heard in a long while. [Disclaimer: This album contains profanity and deals with intense, sexual issues.]

januarymusic2Dum Dum Girls, Too True: These are the things I thought of when I listened to this record: Dancing with strangers. Stumbling over the threshold of the house, drunk. Letting the water run over your face in the shower for longer than is needed. Running for miles to burn off stress. Sitting on the couch across from a friend giving you the worst news possible. Letting out a whoop after hearing the best news possible, then realizing you have no one to share it with. Setting down your computer bag and backpack after your commute. Waking up, turning, only to realize your spouse is on a business trip. Realizing an old friend just avoided your eyes at the grocery store. Watching Say Anything… Opening a wedding invitation from an ex. Listening to a perfect pop record.

januarymusic3Hiss Golden Messenger, Bad Debt: The folk you hear on the radio isn’t real folk music, which is a statement that is just as pretentious as it is true. But true it is, and I can’t get over the fact that so many people will never experience the real folk music being made today, the kind of music that sounds as if it’s being radioed in from the past. M.C. Taylor may have once been in a hardcore-punk band, but his heart sounds at home in homemade folk. I use homemade literally, since Bad Debt was recorded in 2009 at Taylor’s house in North Carolina with his newborn asleep in the next room. It was never properly reduced after the copies of the CD were destroyed in a 2010 fire at his label. Released this year, it sounds no less immediate. These songs are quiet, but they manage to keep from being weak in their conviction that the questions of faith are difficult to answer.

Misses

januarymusic4Bruce Springsteen, High Hopes: I hate admitting this, since Bruce is my favorite musician ever, but his new album kind of sucks. It has a few songs that stand out (the opening title song and the closing “Dream Baby Dream”, a Suicide cover, come to mind), but overall, this compilation of B-sides and staples of the E Street Band’s live shows disappoints. Most of the tracks feel like they should have stayed on the discard pile where they originated. And if the complaint against Springsteen’s most recent albums is overproduction, he’s done nothing to help his case with this one.

januarymusic5Dave Barnes, Golden Days: Dave Barnes specializes in two kinds of music: buoyant frat-pop and lilting love songs. He’s been really, really good at both, but if you want a representative sample of what makes him great, his latest album isn’t a good place to start. Barnes fell into the trap so many of his peers have been falling into lately (Matt Wertz, Jimmy Needham, Ben Rector– though Rector’s most recent album is a return to form) of committing more resources to producing great production rather than producing great songs. Dave Barnes’s last album, Stories to Tell, is a much better introduction to his quality.

januarymusic6Switchfoot, Fading West: This was the biggest disappointment of the month. Switchfoot has been so consistent of late with turning out albums of rousing hard rock and contemplative power ballads that balance exciting instrumentation with thoughtful lyrics. Sure, Fading West isn’t exactly meant to be a proper album- it’s actually a soundtrack to a recent movie the band just made of the same name. But it’s been released as if it should be part of their canon, so I’m treating it that way. Fading West fits right alongside Relient K’s Collapsible Lung as an album that falls squarely on the pop side of pop-rock, and, in the process, both bands have lost something of their identity.

Under the Radar

januarymusic7Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, South: I could have easily put Doug Paisley’s soft country album Strong Feelings in this slot, but if I was going to spotlight one Americana album from January that didn’t receive enough attention, it was going to be South, partly because Paisley did get a little more love from the media, and partly because it’s a tad more exciting. Blackie and the Rodeo Kings is a roots rock supergroup of sorts from, of all places, Canada. South is full of songs that are unabashed country and western music with rock flavorings, boasting hummable melodies and blazing finger-pickin’. The song “I’d Have to Be a Stone” is a love song that would stand among the country greats.

januarymusic8Liz Vice, There’s a Light: There are certain artists that, when you hear them for the first time, make you feel as if you’ve finally found the sound you didn’t know you’d been wanting for years. Liz Vice was one of those artists for me last month. Her sound is full-on ‘60s R&B/soul, à la Aretha Franklin or The Staples Singers, and if those seem to be lofty comparisons, that’s exactly how I meant them. The twist for Liz Vice is that she returns soul to its roots by using the genre as a medium for worship. Each song on this album is full of the Gospel, without sacrificing the inventive spirit of the best old school R&B.

januarymusic9Kye Kye, Fantasize: Take the first two sentences of the previous paragraph and apply them here, replacing “Liz Vice” with “Kye Kye”. It’s rare that you find two Christian acts so devoted both to sharing Gospel truths and to creating exciting, unique music. Kye Kye’s brand of exciting music is synth-pop, and by synth-pop I don’t mean Owl City. Kye Kye is made entirely of siblings (well, two of them are married), born in Estonia, and fronted by the lone sister of the group, Olga. Their newest album isn’t as optimistic as their last one; Olga’s voice is farther back in the mix in the midst of the production, and she sings about a wider range of emotions this time, most of them closer to melancholy than happiness. It’s refreshing to listen to a band so in tune with the whole spectrum of the experience of being a Christian, rather than just delight. It comes across as more honest.

Off the Grid

12inch_sleeve.inddThe Gaslight Anthem, The B-Sides: I love The Gaslight Anthem. They fit just about all the things that I want in a rock band- they tell grand stories, they know how to get me singing along, and they take after Bruce Springsteen. But their new release, a collection of…well, B-sides, occasionally exposes their simple songwriting. And I’m not sure if the acoustic takes bring out the best in the band. I’ll have to give it another listen; for now, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.

Song of the Hour: “Ben’s My Friend” by Sun Kil Moon

sunkilmoon1Why it rocks: I make a lot of noise about how much I love Bruce Springsteen. One of the things that the Boss does best is make songs that tell a story, but they often feel meticulously constructed, and they’re always about other people. “Ben’s My Friend” feels like the most effortless story song ever; Mark Kozelek, the guy behind Sun Kil Moon, drops details like someone gave him way more than he needed and he’s trying to get rid of them, and they’re all from his perspective. Eventually it becomes a song about a man at middle age striving to be at peace his level of personal success, especially when comparing himself to his friend, Ben Gibbard. Kozelek covers these heady themes with an addictive acoustic guitar riff and a melancholy sax solo. Listen at Pitchfork.

Listen if you like…: I mentioned Bruce Springsteen, but a more apt comparison from the same time period is probably Elvis Costello. They’ve got the same biting wit. Sun Kil Moon’s modern contemporaries are probably The National and Destroyer (no, not just because of the sax solos).

sunkilmoon2How’s the album?: Probably better than the last albums released by the two artists I just mentioned. So that means that I think it’s better than Trouble Will Find Me and Kaputt. So that means I think it’s great.

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.