Music Bummys: Best Songs of 2015

Music Bummys: Best Songs of 2015

Top Twenty-Five: 25-11

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Another Twenty-Five

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

Past Top Tens

2014

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

2013

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

2012

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

2011

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

2010

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

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Best Music of 2015 So Far

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

Albums

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

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

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

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

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

Songs

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

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

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

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

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

Most Anticipated Albums of (the rest of) 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Music Bummys 2014: Best Albums of 2013

Drinking game for you as you read this: take a shot every time I use the word “folk”. I’ll buy all these albums for whoever gets through the entire thing before falling asleep on their keyboard.

(Please don’t actually do this. I’m not about that life- the life of you getting drop-dead drunk or the life of buying twenty-five albums for anyone, even my loved ones.)

Links are to the albums on Spotify.

Top Ten

music1010. Heatstroke / The Wind and the War by KaiL Baxley: Music has always been a mishmash of genres, though it does seem like it has become more common to fill your sound with the echoes of disparate styles. Baxley’s album (really, a double EP) is an amalgamation of folk, blues, rock, gospel, even hip-hop. Some albums with all these sounds combined may come off as messy. But Baxley’s songs are tight, and the styles he draws from make for a cohesive vision. To paraphrase my good friend, Rust: music is a flat circle; everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re gonna do over and over and over again.

music099. Yeezus by Kanye West: Yeezus could not be more different from the other rap albums on this list. Where Beautiful Eulogy and Drake find their niche in quiet production and thought-provoking lyrics, West doubles down on the latter and obliterates the former. The instrumentation on Yeezus has been dubbed “industrial”, but that’s not quite accurate. A better word would be the one Daft Punk ascribed to it: “primal”. It’s the sound of rap being reborn.

music088. Instruments of Mercy by Beautiful Eulogy: Beautiful Eulogy doesn’t sound like much of anything else. There are hints of A Tribe Called Quest in BE’s members and their chill flows, but Beautiful Eulogy are a style all their own. It suits them, the intellectual lyrics combined with the buoyant production. The three members (rappers Braille and Odd Thomas with producer Courtland Urbano) draw from all sorts of genres to fixate you on their honest ideas. The result is a thesis statement of uncommon joy.

songs087. The 20/20 Experience by Justin Timberlake: Over a year after its release, I can’t help feeling this album was totally underrated at the time. Expectations were high, which, let’s be honest, was Timberlake’s doing, what with the neverending marketing campaign and the pretentious assertions in the media that he was reaching for “great music”. Now that we’re away from the hype machine, The 20/20 Experience sounds like truly great music without the ignominy of a lack of a hit single or the burden of pleasing the critics. It’s a slice of retro-soul with hooks from beginning to end.

music066. Desire Like Dynamite by Sandra McCracken: It’s hard not to write about this album in the context of the hard year McCracken has had. She and her husband, Derek Webb (see below), announced their pending divorce in April. This album was released in January last year, over a year before. Webb appears on a few of the songs, and it’s always heartwrenching. But McCracken’s lyrics and beautiful voice are so powerfully focused on Christ’s return and the redemption he promises, it manages to convince you this music is an artistic triumph with effects that will outlast her personal turmoil.

music055. Inland by Jars of Clay: Inland is Jars of Clay’s least gimmicky album yet. That’s not to say Jars of Clay has relied on gimmicks before this, only that you can look back on their discography and pigeonhole every single one of their albums: Jars of Clay is the precocious debut, Who We Are Instead is the folk record, Good Monsters is the rock record, The Long Fall Back to Earth is the one where they went electric, and The Shelter is their late-career, collaboration record. I suppose Inland is the mature record? But that implies the rest of them were somehow immature, and you could never say that about Dan Haseltine’s lyrics or the band’s musical prowess. Inland, as a whole, isn’t doing anything different soundwise, and it doesn’t strike me as covering different ground lyricwise. But the band seems less prone to angst, as if they’ve begun to fully embrace their role in providing encouragement to those younger than them. Okay, it’s official: Inland is their grandpa record.songs014. American Kid by Patty Griffin: Patty Griffin has operated on the fringes of the mainstream for so long, it’s easy to forget the influence she’s had. Artists from the Dixie Chicks to Miranda Lambert have covered her work. Taylor Swift writes Griffin’s lyrics on her arm at her concerts. You could argue the current Americana boom wouldn’t be possible without her; for all the fakers in the scene, her authenticity is responsible for the real deals. American Kid isn’t my favorite record of hers, but it seems like her most personal. Griffin’s father recently passed away, and his ghost is all over the album, directly in “Go Wherever You Wanna Go”, as she celebrates his freedom from this world, and indirectly in songs like “I Am Not a Bad Man” and “Don’t Let Me Die in Florida”, song in which she takes on the persona of a man striving to justify his existence. But nothing haunts this record more than Griffin’s voice; whether she sings from a character’s perspective or her own, her voice commands your attention.

music033. Once I Was an Eagle by Laura Marling: It’s nice to have mystery in life. You’re not supposed to know everything about people, even the ones you love the most. You need a certain distance in order to remain relevant. Laura Marling lives in that distance. It’s the area between people who think they’re in love, but who learn they never really knew each other in the first place. It’s the space between the people in a one night stand after they’ve realized what they did together wasn’t worth the subsequent awkwardness as they lie in bed. It’s the nothingness at the center of the rolling stone’s many transient relationships. You wish for stability and steadiness for Marling. But then you worry she’d lose her poignancy, and you lose yourself in her album’s spare beauty.

music022. Beyoncé by Beyoncé: I was going to write about Beyoncé when she first released it, but I struggled with what angle to take. It’s easy to write about anything you love, but it’s difficult to write about something you’re not sure you should love. But I already addressed my issues with the album’s sexuality in my Best Songs post, so I’d much rather take up this space with my love for the album. When Beyoncé was released out of nowhere last December, it felt like the purest pop statement imaginable, which is impossible considering how much money the Carter family is making right now. But Beyoncé eschewed the regular format for releasing an album, making it clear that this was hers; even if she didn’t write the songs, the full product, the album as a whole, the songs in their collected form (including the explicit videos, which I haven’t seen), are her statement. It’s a statement of feminism, yes, and a statement of a woman owning her sexuality, and a statement that pop music has taken a step back and it’s time to go forward. But more than that: it’s a statement that no one is going to unseat her as the queen.

music011. Southeastern by Jason Isbell: Listen to an album enough times, and you begin to see the seams. The machine shows its gears a little bit at a time, and you sometimes lose appreciation for the song as you discover how it’s managed to hook you. This can’t happen with Southeastern. There’s nothing to hook you on this album. I supposed it has the allure of the Americana megalith that has become the new “alternative” to mainstream music, but Jason Isbell is outside of that. He had his break in Drive-By Truckers, which is an outfit full of people who couldn’t care less about trends; they made songs and whole albums about dead classic rockers during his tenure, as an example. Southeastern does have a convenient narrative- Isbell made it having been relatively newly sober and non-relatively married. But Isbell addresses his cleanness only once, in “Stockholm,” as he laments being enamored with his captor (in this case, addiction). The rest of the album is preoccupied with death, loss, and the end of things, with at least two songs about his funeral, at least two that address the deaths of the people around him, and one about a province in Australia. Closer “Relatively Easy” ties a bow on those themes, but not a pretty one; you come away from Southeastern supremely moved, and “Relatively Easy” is Isbell’s reminder not to get too worked up about death. Compared to the rest of the world, our lives are easy. Compared to the rest of the world, our deaths are probably easier too.

Another Fifteen (alphabetically by artist)

Doldrums by Andrew St James: Like early Bob Dylan if his home base was the Bay Area? I’d rather compared him to Van Morrison. His style is far more free-flowing and melodic than Dylan’s early-period, straight-laced protest folk.

Reflektor by Arcade Fire: One of the more obtuse albums of the year, and the most divisive. My feelings on Reflektor go back and forth; I’ll love it one listen, then feel ambivalence on the next listen. Regardless, Reflektor is an ambitious statement of a rock album that tackles subjects other bands are really willing to face head on in songs like “Porno” and “Afterlife”.

The Civil Wars by The Civil Wars: Civil Wars, we hardly knew ye. Who knows what really happened to Joy Williams and John Paul White, but whatever it was, you can hear it all over their self-titled second album. Spite, regret, and general darkness are just dripping from their words as they expand the depths of their acoustic folk sound from their first record with slow-roasting production.

The Rooster by David Ramirez: Your EP better be super good for me to include it on this list. Ramirez is an Austin singer-songwriter, specializing in blunt folk that either excoriates himself or certain trends he finds reprehensible, which is kind of what folk used to be if you think about it. Over the past year, his songs have connected with me with a consistency like no one else’s; if he had transferred this quality to a full album, it surely would have been near the top.

I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You by Derek Webb: This one hurts, though I won’t pretend to have any special insight into Webb’s relationship with McCracken (see above). But it’s hard to hear Webb sing so clearly about relationships with what sounds like wisdom and joy. Even so, the songs speak for themselves, and I Was Wrong is full of great ones.

Nothing Was the Same by Drake: He’s a better rapper than most of the rappers and a better singer than most of the singers; put that together, and what have you got? One Aubrey Drake Graham, whose Nothing Was the Same may not have been the cohesive thesis statement that Take Care was. But Nothing does have the greatest album cover of all time (arguably).

Tape Deck Heart by Frank Turner: You could describe Turner’s sound pretty accurately as folk-punk, but this was the best pure rock album of the year. Turner sounds like the kind of man who needs to parse through his relationships’ demons by letting loose a little bit. If so, this album probably did the trick.

Quiet Frame; Wild Light by Golden Youth: Gungor released only one album last year, but you’d be forgiven for confusing Quiet Frame for one of theirs, especially since it’s better than I Am Mountain. Where Gungor found themselves caught up in abstract ideas rather than the straightforward gospel-sharing from their first two albums, Golden Youth keep it simple. In only seven songs, Quiet Frame celebrates all the ways God blesses us in this life.

The Electric Lady by Janelle Monáe: No one does Prince like Monáe these days, especially not even Prince. The Electric Lady is a continuation of the android concept from her brilliant ArchAndroid. As devoted as she is to that concept (and maybe after a third album she’ll have it beaten into me), her devotion to kinetic R&B is what keeps me coming back.

Trouble Will Find Me by The National: If you hate consistency, you’ll loathe The National. They aren’t concerned with things like “changing our sound” or “growing as a band”. They’re content to make the same brand of soft rock till they die out, puncturing relationships with indelible images on album after album, and Trouble Will Find Me is no exception to their greatness.

Meet Me at the Edge of the World by Over the Rhine: Over the Rhine are a group from Ohio who have received this blog’s praises before. They’re a lot like Patty Griffin: operating outside the mainstream, but influencing a ton of people in their genre. Meet Me at the Edge of the World is their most subdued album yet, and it projects serenity from beginning to end.

Muchacho by Phosphorescent: If you like Kurt Vile, you’ll love Phosphorescent. That is, of course, unless you don’t like your songs to have energy or sound like they’re full of life. Where Vile fully embraces the stoner sound without actually lighting up, it’s easy to imagine Phosphorescent’s Matthew Houck with a joint in one hand while he skydives into an abyss.

Talented 10th by Sho Baraka: The most underrated album by a Christian last year, probably because Sho drops a bunch of N-words on one of the songs. But focusing on the profanity is missing his point. Talented 10th is a front-to-back dissection of life within black culture from a Christian perspective, and Sho came so close to unseating Yeezus from the top ten that you have to give this a listen.

Nobody Knows. by Willis Earl Beal: This was the peak of Beal’s troubadour powers. He’s backsliding into self-parody at this point, but Nobody Knows. was a full album’s worth of his best material. He does meandering folk better than anyone, and it’s my hope that he gets back to this level soon.

W.L.A.K. by W.L.A.K.: Grantland’s Jalen Rose and David Jacoby held a bracket for who has was the best hip-hop group of all time. Seems like they overlooked one, #amiright? W.L.A.K. (Alex Faith, Christon Gray, Dre Murray, and Swoope) are new, but they make quite the impression on this album that made the best of all their distinct styles.

Previous Top Tens

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

Music Bummys 2014: Best Songs of 2013

Music Bummys 2014: Best Songs of 2013

I thought I was doing pretty well this year- only 15 of my top 50 songs could be considered Americana. I felt like maybe I was branching out, instead of allowing my predisposition towards folk music to dominate my music consumption. But then I realized half of my top 10 is Americana, so maybe there’s just no changing me. But apart from Americana you’ll find a lot of baby-making R&B, a bunch of alternative Christian music you won’t find on KLUV, some EDM (Wow, is that an EDM song all the way up at #2?), 2 freaking country songs, and Michael Bublé, whose presence on this list should be enough proof that I could care less what the critics thought were the best songs of 2013.

Links to the songs are in the titles. I tried to link to only clean videos, hence no links to Beyoncé videos.

Another Twenty-Five

50. “Demon to Lean On” by Wavves
49. “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo” by Superchunk
48. “Seven Seas” by Golden Youth
47. “Sufferer (Love My Conqueror)” by Hiss Golden Messenger
46. “Body Party” by Ciara
45. “Lay My Burden Down” by Aoife O’Donovan
44. “Do What U Want (feat. R. Kelly)” by Lady Gaga
43. “It’s a Beautiful Day” by Michael Bublé
42. “Two Fingers” by Jake Bugg
41. “Play by Play” by Autre Ne Veut
40. “The Way (feat. Mac Miller)” by Ariana Grande
39. “Drunk in Love (feat. Jay-Z)” by Beyoncé
38. “The Mother We Share” by CHVRCHES
37. “Happy” by Pharrell Williams
36. “Still Fighting the War (feat. Jimmy LaFave)” by Slaid Cleaves
35. “I Wish I Wish” by Sam Amidon
34. “Avant Gardener” by Courtney Barnett
33. “In the Garden” by Sandra McCracken
32. “Relatively Easy” by Jason Isbell
31. “Diane Young” by Vampire Weekend
30. “Like a Rose” by Ashley Monroe
29. “Exile Dial Tone” by Beautiful Eulogy
28. “Long Way Down” by W.L.A.K.
27. “Inland” by Jars of Clay
26. “Song My Love Can Sing” by Doug Paisley

Top 25 Songs

25. “New Slaves” by Kanye West: West has mastered vulgarity; his use of obscenities in his music has become as much an art form as his sampling. Yeezus as a whole is brilliant in how it denudes our society’s fake morality. It’s hard to feel sorry for Kanye specifically, but the fact that even rich black people continue to experience discrimination is a problem he makes undeniable.

24. “Wasting My Young Years” by London Grammar: London Grammar is probably more famous for appearing on Disclosure’s album, but their biggest statement came on their own album. “Wasting My Young Years” is unapologetic in its melancholy. Luckily, frontwoman Hannah Reid’s voice is ethereal enough to keep you getting down in the dumps.

23. “I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You” by Derek Webb: This song is heartbreaking in the wake of Webb’s divorce (see below). But the sentiment is still potent. Webb courts controversy elsewhere, but on “I Was Wrong”, he clearly articulates the art of forgiveness.

22. “The One That Got Away” by The Civil Wars: Maybe the passion and spite bursting forth from this song is imagined. I don’t care. We lost something great when Joy Williams and John Paul White decided to part ways. R.I.P.

21. “Afterlife” by Arcade Fire: I have a feeling this song will rank higher on this list in a few years. The highlight of their ambitious double album Reflektor, “Afterlife” wrestles with the question of what happens after things are over, oscillating from relationships to life itself. The lyrics never answer the question, but the music that carries on after the words appears to suggest that there is at least something.

20. “Ask Me To” by Courtney Jaye: A purer pop song wasn’t released last year. Forget Neko Case. The best power-pop released last year was by Courtney Jaye.

19. “Honest Affection” by Kye Kye: The best thing to come out of Estonia since…hm. Not sure what else has come out of Estonia recently, now that I think about it. Apparently machinery and equipment. Who knew? Anyway, the members of this band are from Estonia, and it’s pop like you’ve never heard before.

18. “Blood on the Leaves” by Kanye West: Seeing as it samples Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit”, “Blood on the Leaves” was already going to be a heavy song. Add to that its apparent topic of abortion, and it’s hard to imagine a more depressing song. But “Blood on the Leaves” is everything that has made Kanye West great, from his use of Auto-Tune to the ingenious sample to the singularly angry lyrics- it’s a synthesized miracle of a song.

17. “Hourglass” by Sandra McCracken: As the other half of the previously mentioned divorce (see above, Derek Webb), McCracken’s 2013 album had the potential to be equally heartbreaking. But the subject matter she deals with is less ripe for ironic interpretation. Instead, McCracken focuses her beautiful voice on dream-like visions of what we have to look forward to when Christ returns, of which “Hourglass” is the pinnacle.

16. “Royals” by Lorde: I wonder if “Royals” had been less ubiquitous last year, would I love it more or less? It’s hard to say; on one hand, maybe I’d feel more superior about myself for liking an unheard gem. But on the other hand, if I ever say “Jet planes, islands,” you know to say “Tigers on a gold leash”, and that’s pure joy.

15. “Where Were You” by Ghost Ship: I can’t say for certain if any other songs have the book of Job as their source material. But I doubt any capture the meaning of that book so fully both in their lyrics and music. Taken from Job’s closing diatribe from God, essentially asking where Job was when God created the world, the instrumentation builds into a chaotic paean to God’s power and, ultimately, His great mercy.

14. “Recovery” by Frank Turner: I didn’t know I needed Turner’s brand of folk-punk until I heard it. “Recovery” apparently plays on radio stations in areas that still value good radio, so, naturally, I’ve never heard it in Oklahoma. Instead, I get excited every time it comes on my iPod, and I rock out to it behind my wheel as I try to master every lyric in this wordy masterpiece about how difficult self-improvement seems.

13. “Dark and Dirty Mile” by Jason Boland & the Stragglers: Here is an example of why I’m a liar when I say, “I like all kinds of music- except country.” Here is an example of country at its simplest and best. Here is an example of a band that understands country is most profound when dealing honestly with the darkness in this world.

12. “Get Lucky (feat. Pharrell Williams)” by Daft Punk: If there was a more ubiquitous song last year, it was called “Blurred Lines” and it was hypnotically odious. “Get Lucky” comes dangerously close to the same mysogyny; you’re not sure Pharrell is trying to take advantage of the girl who’s “up all night for good fun” or if she’s in on the game. But by the time Nile Rodgers hits his solo on the bridge, you’re sure it’s the latter, because you’re dancing and singing and you’ve stopped thinking.

11. “Stoned and Starving” by Parquet Courts: I was surprised when this song didn’t end up in the top 10. It’s such a timeless piece of punk, following frontman Andrew Savage as he looks for a snack to quench his munchies, about nothing and brilliant at the same time. I guess it’s at #11 because I followed my heart with the next 10 songs, something I’m sure Savage and Co. would shrug at amid ample feedback.

songs1010. “The Sea & the Shore (feat. John Fullbright)” by Amy Speace: I know I’ll alienate the vast majority of my readership with this reference (so like 4 of you), but this song by Speace always evokes the story-song emotion of Jason Robert Brown’s best songs in his musicals. The delivery by both Speace and Fullbright is less theatrical than, say, Norbert Leo Butz or Andrea Burns. But the imagery is just as evocative, detailing the story of the sea’s unrequited love for the shore with gossiping shells and an interloping moon. Speace, who has a background in the theatre, gives the more emotive performance, while Fullbright is a nice, more subdued complement. The combination leaves me with a feeling of longing every time.

songs099. “Rocket” by Beyoncé: Goodness, this song is sexy. Another appropriate word for it is “sex-ful”, as in “full of sex”. This might be the most explicit song I’ve ever heard that never actually references anything explicitly. For that reason, I can only commend this song with the caveat that I can’t imagine this being anything but a stumbling block to those who aren’t married (and I can’t link to the video for ANYONE). And for those who are, I haven’t quite worked out in my head if listening to something like this is right or wrong. Trip Lee may have put it best when he posed the question to Beyoncé on his blog, “Is there a way to celebrate married sex without publicly flaunting one’s own sexuality and tempting others to lust?” I don’t know the answer, but if there’s a way, Beyoncé has paved it.

songs088. “Mirrors” by Justin Timberlake: Timberlake’s album was a disappointment to many, and it wasn’t quite the blockbuster everyone expected. But “Mirrors” was everywhere in my life last year. A refreshing ode to commitment and how the one you want to spend the rest of your life with sometimes sneaks up on you, “Mirrors” was a nice change of pace from everything else on the radio. In the context of his album, “Mirrors” stands out from the retro-soul Timberlake sometimes overreaches for. It sounds like the song Timberlake’s whole career has been building towards, the culmination of his best musical and personal qualities.

songs077. “Hold On, We’re Going Home (feat. Majid Jordan)” by Drake: I say this as someone who loves Drake and his music, but the best thing about “Hold On” is that it doesn’t even sound like a Drake song- or at least what the radio thinks of as a Drake song. “Hold On” sounds out of time, like Drake’s voice could be coming from the future or the past or some alternate version of the present. The lyrics would be vaguely creepy, except the chorus is vaguely comforting, like the girl really does belong at home with Drake, like it would really be her home. Even if the lyrics are stalkerish, “Hold On” has the same key ingredient as other restraining order songs like “Every Breath You Take” or “Happy Together”: an indelible melody. That lilting chorus was the difference last year between a meme and an all-time great song.

songs066. “The Bad Days” by David Ramirez: Ramirez came out of nowhere last year to become one of my new favorite artists. An Austin native, he has an authenticity in his songwriting that most folk artists only dream of. Here, Ramirez is encouraging his significant other (Wife? Girlfriend? Ramirez is a mystery.) to hold on to the good times. Few love songs have a line in their chorus as strong as “You’re still my girl in the bad days”. Even fewer can top it in a verse with a line as blunt as “I pray that the times that our love is sweet / Outweigh the days that you hate me.”

songs055. “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)” by Oscar Isaac & Marcus Mumford: This song shouldn’t be on this list. It’s an old song with a long history in folk music, covered by everyone from Pete Seeger to Bob Dylan to the man that Inside Llewyn Davis was loosely based on, Dave van Ronk, to freaking Jeff Buckley. But I can’t help but love the version sung by Llewyn and his dead partner (voiced by Mumford in the movie). It might be the harmonies deceiving me, but I think it’s more than that. “Dink’s Song” is always sung very sparely, but I think T-Bone Burnett filled the song out well while still preserving the simplicity that is essential to its charm. And the harmonies help.

songs044. “I Blame Myself” by Sky Ferreira: Sky Ferreira doesn’t give a damn about her bad reputation, except when she does. “I Blame Myself” is the song of a woman who does care what others think about her, but contrary to the title, I don’t think Ferreira is really blaming herself. The whole tone of the chorus is defiant, as if her insistence that any woman should be blamed for their own involvement in sexual harassment is totally and completely sarcastic. Fitting, with all the domestic abuse charges flying around in sports news lately. This should be required listening in the NFL. They won’t be able to get it out of their heads either.

songs033. “Elephant” by Jason Isbell: For the longest time I couldn’t choose a favorite song from Jason Isbell’s Southeastern. But “Elephant” stands out every time I hear it. When you hear it in the context of the album, it might not stand out, since it’s surrounded by great songs. But “Elephant” is far and away Isbell’s best song yet, solo or with the Drive-By Truckers. I don’t know if the girl dying in this song is supposed to be a metaphor or if she was real in Isbell’s life, but his portrait of her is devastating. It’s hard to imagine I’ll ever hear a more truth-filled song about dealing with death.

songs022. “Latch (feat. Sam Smith)” by Disclosure: Never. Then a metronomic beat kicks in, with syncopated flourishes. Then Sam Smith’s voice slides in, and comfort. This sounds like a human song now. His verse ends, and synths wash over me, still comforting. Smith is back, but he sounds less human now. He sounds sure of his relationship, but the music isn’t sure. The bottom slips out from under him. Now Smith is wailing, and desperate. Not human. No, not human at all. What’s happening to him? WHAT’S HAPPENING TO HIS VOICE? WHAT’S HAPPENING TO ME? WHY AM I SINGING WITH HIM? WHY AM I SINGING FALSETTO? WHY IS MY HAND IN THE AIR LIKE A DIVA? WHAT IS HAPPENING? I’m hooked. No, latched. Never.

songs011. “Go Wherever You Wanna Go” by Patty Griffin: I saw Patty Griffin at Dan’s Silverleaf in Denton earlier this year. She was predictably incredible, if you like her brand of Americana, and I don’t- I love it. I went into the concert excited to hear a wide range of her songs, but mostly ones from my favorite album of hers, Children Running Through. I liked American Kid at this point, but it wasn’t my priority that night. Then, near the end of her set, Griffin played this song. I already thought it was the best song on American Kid. But when I heard it that night, it took on new meaning for me. Griffin wrote the song for her recently deceased father. As I listen to it, I think of Griffin’s joy at the idea of her father finally being free from the demons of his life, whether they were the heavy ones of war or the routine ones of having to pay the bills. I don’t know what Griffin’s ideas of heaven are, but this song gets close to my idea of heaven’s freedom. That night, at Dan’s Silverleaf, when Patty Griffin swung into the final chorus of this, one of her most wonderful songs, I thought of my grandparents, all dead. I thought of their full lives, and the peace they have in heaven, if that’s where they are. I thought of my parents, all the hard work my mother and father put in to give my sister and me opportunities; all the ways my dad serves at church, giving up time and energy in a way that he would never call a sacrifice; all the hours my mom spent taking care of me and my sister, just her, when my dad was away on business trips. I thought of what it must be like to know your parents are finally free of the hard kind of work and pain and giving so much. I suppose when that happens I’ll think of this song. I’ll be older, and the meaning will have only deepened.

Previous Top Songs

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 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