Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake, and the Case of the Disappointing Album

Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake, and the Case of the Disappointing Album

It wasn’t supposed to go this way. These were supposed to be blockbuster albums, one more in a succession of successes. reputation was supposed to solidify Taylor Swift’s status as a full-on pop music superstar after 1989 . Man of the Woods was supposed to be another bid for Justin Timberlake to have shed his boy-band image after 20/20 Experience laid the foundation for a grown-up, mature JT. This should have been easy.

It would be hard to claim that neither reputation nor Man of the Woods has been successful. Swift’s new album is already 3 times platinum, and it spent several weeks at No. 1 on the charts. Timberlake’s debuted at No. 1, and it’s no shame that the Kendrick-curated Black Panther soundtrack unseated it, given the fact that Black Panther is a bona fide phenomenon. If sales or streams are your measuring stick, then you can pack up and go home, because these two albums are slam dunks, home runs, etc.

But if you care about quality, narrative, and legacy, the verdict is a little murkier. That doesn’t necessarily make them bad albums, but in the pop culture world we live in now, “not bad” isn’t really good enough. Before these albums were released, Swift and Timberlake were among the unquestioned elite in pop music, on equal footing reputation-wise with Beyoncé, Adele, or Kanye. Is that still the case now?

You could argue both are still in that upper echelon. After all, the quality, narrative, and legacy of a record are critics’ concerns, not a general audience’s. That’s largely true. Today, in the here and now, the, well, reputations of reputation and of Man of the Woods do not depend on a media consensus. But how a record is remembered is a matter of history, and the writers of history are writers. The fact that these albums are generally disliked by music writers matters. Will Swift’s and Timberlake’s places in the pop music elite survive long-term despite their album’s poor reception?

taylorswift02Critics didn’t actually hate reputation. Spin, Rolling Stone, and NME all gave the album positive reviews, after all. But most critics were mixed if not ambivalent about reputation, and some prominent outlets were outright negative, like Pitchfork, AllMusic, and Consequence of Sound. The preponderance of reviews were simply underwhelmed.

A lot of this can be chalked up to expectations. The four albums preceding reputation (Fearless, Speak Now, Red, and 1989) found themselves all over critics’ year-end lists. Her songwriting was endlessly praised, as well as her ability to master multiple genres and sounds as she transitioned away from country music and toward pop. If people grew tired of her tendency to depend on her dating life for lyrical material, she made up for it with hooks impeccably crafted to paint themselves onto your psyche. After 1989 made her biggest shift into pop music yet, it was reasonable for people to expect Swift to continue her run of greatness.

The first few singles tempered expectations a little. The first, “Look What You Made Me Do,” while boasting some of Swift’s most pointed satire, has a nearly atonal chorus that almost begs you not to like it. (Who is she talking to, anyway? What did I make her do?) This was a huge left-turn for the Taylor Swift that had leaned hard into sweeping synth melodies on 1989. “Ready for It?” was a more typical Swift hook, but not quite up to her standards. As in, it didn’t take over the world like any of the singles from 1989 did.

And there was bad press leading up to reputation’s release as well. A segment of the alt-right movement began to use her lyrics as a rallying cry while claiming that she is a closeted neo-Nazi. To be clear, these are claims with no basis in any sort of evidence whatsoever. But Swift never adequately addressed these claims, and so a blogger at PopFront claimed there were white supremacist dog-whistles in the “Look What You Made Me Do” video, while condemning her “political silence” during the volatile 2016 presidential election. Instead of simply denying these claims, Swift threatened the writer with a cease and desist letter.

The blog post is a pretty poorly reasoned argument. A simpler and more generous reading of Swift’s “political silence” (Swift did eventually endorse Clinton) would come to the conclusion that when she’s not supporting an album with a tour and interviews, she values her privacy over the attention that advocacy of any kind brings. This fits with what we know about Swift: her life is meticulously controlled, outsiders not allowed in without invitation, rumors leaked by her camp when she chooses.

But Swift could have solved all of this by simply condemning the alt-right movement. By remaining silent, she left the door open for enough people to question her motives that she lost control over her career’s narrative, control she held so preciously before.

And honestly, the themes of reputation don’t help her case much. A lot of the songs (“Look What You Made Me Do,” “End Game,” “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”) deal with Swift embracing her dark side. A lot of the “bad girl” stuff on reputation is on the nose and overdone; I mean, there’s a song called “I Did Something Bad,” for goodness’ sake. It also comes across as cynical, which is the wrong tone to strike after accusations of bullying and associations with racism.

Despite the bad narrative surrounding the lead-up to the album, I love reputation. I’m turned off by a lot of the cynicism inherent in Swift’s attempts at a bad-girl image, but I think that’s less present in the music itself than in how she chose to promote it. Much of this album is Swift grappling with what romance looks like as a 28-year-old, and much of it is actually the opposite of cynical. “Dress,” “Gorgeous,” “King of My Heart,” and “Call It What You Want” are celebrations of committed love. Even “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” which is a Kanye kiss-off, is overflowing with good humor and the joy of finally getting to speak her mind.

reputation is also chock full of Swift’s trademark vulnerability. She made her name on appealing to the insecurities she shared with all young people, and this continues on reputation. “Delicate” is a pitch-perfect examination of turning to short-term romance to fill the holes in your soul. And “New Year’s Day,” the album’s best song and closer, details the fleeting nature of your efforts to make memories in any relationship.

I enjoy reputation, even though it’s unfocused and messy, jumping from theme to theme without the level of cohesion I’m used to from a Taylor Swift album. It seems to be a reflection of Swift’s own current messiness, adding to a discography that perfectly mirrors the trajectory of a white, middle-class girl growing up. I don’t expect many other people to share that opinion, given all the bad faith surrounding the album’s release narrative, some of it contrived and some of it legitimate. Maybe ten years from now, there will be a flurry of blog posts that revisit reputation and call it an underrated classic, but I doubt it. It’s not as good from front to back as 1989, and I’m sure it will leave a bad taste in most people’s mouths.

justintimberlake01Speaking of bad taste: Man of the Woods. Even though Justin Timberlake has had an invincible career up to this point, and even though he had the lay-up opportunity that is the Super Bowl halftime show, no one took Man of the Woods seriously from the start. The album’s trailer could be an SNL digital short, with its misplaced attempts at sincerity paired with unnecessary amounts of flannel. The cognitive dissonance of watching Timberlake run around a pasture with horses while the R&B single “Supplies” plays in the background? That’s the whole album in a nutshell. Timberlake wanted to make music that reflected the place he’s from, and he ended up making…the same kind of music he’s always made.

Like reputation, bad narratives preceded Man of the Woods. To be fair to Timberlake, it was pretty poor timing for #MeToo to explode right before his album cycle began. While JT has never had a sexual harassment scandal, his career trajectory is inextricably linked to the career bombing of two former pop superstars who happened to be female.

Other people have pointed this out in more detail in recent weeks. In fact, as Timberlake’s Super Bowl halftime show drew closer, a lot of outlets began publishing reconsiderations of Timberlake’s success, given his (literal) hand in setting back Janet Jackson’s career during his last Super Bowl appearance. He’s always felt more like an unwitting product of a dick culture rather than an actual dick(in-the-box) himself. But even if he wasn’t directly responsible for ruining the careers of the women around him, he never was able to fully articulate a properly repentant or apologetic defense, and that’s been enough to cloud the hype of this album release.

Being reminded of his (surely unintentional) participation in the downfall of both Britney Spears and Janet Jackson did nothing to help my opinion of Man of the Woods. But neither did the album. If Timberlake wants to get serious about his love for his wife, his son, and his home, that’s great. I’d even go as far as to say that’s what his fans expect. After all, he did that really well on The 20/20 Experience, which has held up well in the last 5 years thanks to “Mirrors,” “Suit & Tie,” and an awesome concert tour, which I was lucky enough to see with my wife.

Man of the Woods takes its concept too seriously, shoehorning it in as often as possible, as evidenced by songs titled “Supplies,” “Flannel,” and “Livin’ off the Land,” all of which would be far better songs without being tied to a faux-rugged existence that is so clearly not Timberlake’s reality. In “Flannel,” Timberlake literally utters the words, “Here’s my flannel / The character’s in the way you wear it / It takes your shape while you keep it on,” which is something no one who actually wears flannel has ever thought. In “Supplies,” which is about how the apocalypse is sexy(?), Timberlake somehow thought it was a good idea to make the chorus “I got supplie-ie-ies,” and…yep, that’s it. That’s the whole chorus.

I might have been okay with the ridiculous lyrics and thematic gambles. I mean, this guy made an album called FutureSex/LoveSounds, and it worked. But the music isn’t really up to his standards. Having come off the biggest hit of his career, “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” which is one of the earworms of the decade, Timberlake thought it made sense to release “Filthy,” which barely has a repeatable melody.

Even the best songs on the album are dependent on contributions from other artists. “Morning Light” features Alicia Keys in one of the few times on the album where a song sounds effortlessly sexy. “Say Something,” if you can get past its vague message, benefits from the presence of Chris Stapleton, who makes the case with his harmonies that maybe Timberlake should have given the whole record to him. And “Breeze off the Pond” is the only instance where the back-to-his-roots idea works for JT, because it leans heavily on a killer guitar riff from Pharrell, and Timberlake keeps the heavy-handed metaphors to a minimum.

In case my snark isn’t coming through enough, I just want to go on the record: I really don’t like Man of the Woods. But Justin Timberlake still means a lot to me. “Mirrors” came out a few months before my wife and I tied the knot, and it shaped my hopes for our future together. I listened and danced to “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” as an effort to bond with one of my patients, and it ended up being the main way we connected. “Cry Me a River” and “My Love” are still two of my favorite songs from my adolescence.

However, when it comes to deciding who will maintain the goodwill that comes with being a superstar, I’m inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to Taylor and not Justin. More people like reputation, and Swift has built up enough goodwill over the course of her career as a champion of the bullied (“Mean,” “Fifteen”), that I believe she’s poised to survive her recent bad press. Also, she’s done a good job of cultivating the image of a songwriter over any other label. Swift’s success will always be perceived to be hers, rather than attributable to anyone else.

Every week I sit down with one of my patients and watch old Taylor Swift videos. This patient only likes older Taylor Swift, not the new stuff. We watch “Mean” and “Our Song” and “You Belong with Me,” and the patient lights up. It’s been hard to find anything else she likes as much as old-school Taylor Swift. But every time she asks for it on her eye-gaze device, and I pull “Love Story” up on an iPad, she begins smiling and laughing, without fail.

There’s enough on reputation that makes me light up for me to still hold Swift in high esteem. There are precious few moments on Man of the Woods that have a similar effect. They’ll both probably bounce back just fine, but it’s a little more plausible to imagine Swift coming out of this on top while Timberlake transitions into other roles, such as producing, or maybe just perpetually making funny videos with Jimmy Fallon. That wouldn’t be the worst thing. Jimmy Fallon is pretty funny.

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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

If I Ran the Grammys 2014

It’s well-documented that the Grammys are awfully messed up.  I don’t need to rehash that here.  Instead, let’s take a look at what the Grammys would look like this year if someone smart, capable, and really, really good-looking ran them. Who, me? Why, yes, I’d love to.

A few rules to go over first though.  First of all, I’d like to change the fact that the Grammy cutoff is September 30th every year, meaning that three whole months of 2013 music weren’t considered for this year’s Grammys and that three whole months of 2012 were, so that’s why only two of the Albums of the Year nominees are from 2013.  However, I think I’ll keep it that way just so my Grammys can be a little bit screwy.

Second of all, I’m keeping Song of the Year and Record of the Year separate.  The Grammys’ Song of the Year awards songwriting, while the Record of the Year awards production and performance.  I think that’s a legitimate line of separation for the two.

I won’t include albums or songs in the major categories that I think stand no chance of being nominated for Grammys.  That means the artist and/or album must have had a certain amount of popularity.  So while my personal Album of the Year might be Jason Isbell’s Southeastern, there’s no way it would ever be nominated for Album of the Year.  But it could be nominated for Americana Album of the Year, because, for me, anything goes in those genre awards.

Both who I think will win and who won my vote are in bold:

Album of the Year

grammys1Real nominees: Random Access Memories, Daft Punk
good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kendrick Lamar
The Heist, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
The Blessed Unrest, Sara Bareilles
Red, Taylor Swift

I am terrible at picking this category, but I think Daft Punk has the most momentum since it dominated 2013.  But given the Grammys’ strange track record, I have to root for Sara Bareilles to win this.  How great would it be if she won?  She’s an awesome person, and, while I don’t like the album much, I love upsets and want the Grammys to be as crazy and wacked out as possible.  But in my version, I switched Bareilles out for a folk album that actually makes sense (The Civil Wars’ album hit No. 1 on Billboard and the duo has a lot of support in the industry), replaced Daft Punk’s overblown effort with Justin Timberlake’s somewhat less overblown effort, and replaced Macklemore’s approximation of an album with Kanye’s masterpiece.  I don’t really have a problem with Taylor in the lineup, but I preferred Lorde’s revelatory pop album to Swift’s more straightforward one.  And, in a surprise win, to the joy of music lovers everywhere, Kendrick Lamar wins the big one and good kid is the first rap album to win Album of the Year since- wow, since 10 years ago when OutKast won?  And that’s the only rap album that’s ever won?  I’m about to change my mind- there’s nothing I can do about the Grammys.  They’re unfixable.

grammys2My nominees: The Civil Wars, The Civil Wars
The 20/20 Experience, Justin Timberlake
Yeezus, Kanye West
good kid, m.A.A.d cityKendrick Lamar
Pure Heroine, Lorde

Record of the Year

grammys1Real nominees: “Locked Out of Heaven”, Bruno Mars
“Get Lucky (feat. Pharrell Williams)”, Daft Punk
“Radioactive”, Imagine Dragons
“Royals”, Lorde
“Blurred Lines (feat. T.I. & Pharrell Williams)”, Robin Thicke

“Get Lucky” was the best song of the year, hands down.  “Locked Out” and “Royals” are the only actual nominees that can even compete.  It’s a travesty that “Blurred Lines” was even nominated.  And “Radioactive” may be one of the worst popular “rock” songs in recent history.  Drake, Kendrick, and Taylor make much better bedfellows for Lorde and Daft Punk.

grammys1My nominees: “Get Lucky (feat. Pharrell Williams)”Daft Punk
“Hold On, We’re Going Home (feat. Majid Jordan) ”, Drake
“B***h, Don’t Kill My Vibe [Explicit]”, Kendrick Lamar
“Royals”Lorde
“I Knew You Were Trouble”, Taylor Swift

Song of the Year

grammys3Real nominees: “Locked Out of Heaven”Bruno Mars
“Roar”, Katy Perry
“Royals”Lorde
“Same Love (feat. Mary Lambert)”, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
“Just Give Me a Reason (feat. Nate Ruess)”, P!nk

I hate “Same Love”, but the Grammys like to pretend they’re progressive (I say pretend because they nominated “Blurred Lines” in the previous category), so it’ll probably win.  I’d prefer “Royals” over any of them, but I would be happy with “Locked Out” or even “Just Give Me a Reason”.  But “Mirrors” was the best-written song of the year, music and lyrics.

grammys4My nominees: “Like a Rose”, Ashley Monroe
“The One That Got Away”, The Civil Wars
“Mirrors”, Justin Timberlake
“Royals”Lorde
“I Knew You Were Trouble”Taylor Swift

Best New Artist

grammys3Real nominees: Ed Sheeran
James Blake
Kacey Musgraves
Kendrick Lamar
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

Neither Ed Sheeran nor Kacey Musgraves really belongs in this category, since they both released their debut album/single respectively before the voting deadline.  Kendrick deserves it, and in a perfect world (read: my world), he’d win it.  But Macklemore’s going to get it.  Booo.

grammys2My nominees: Ashley Monroe
Jake Bugg
Kendrick Lamar
Lorde
Parquet Courts

Best Pop Album

grammys5Real nominees (Pop Vocal Album): Unorthodox Jukebox, Bruno Mars
The 20/20 Experience – The Complete Experience, Justin Timberlake
Paradise, Lana Del Rey
Pure Heroine, Lorde
Blurred Lines, Robin Thicke

I don’t particularly like Bruno Mars’s album, but it wouldn’t be a tragedy if it won.  The real tragedy is that the Recording Academy deigned to give Robin Thicke another nomination in the place of really strong work from three newcomers, Ariana Grande, Charli XCX, and Haim.

grammys4My nominees: Yours Truly, Ariana Grande
True Romance, Charli XCX
Days Are Gone, Haim
The 20/20 Experience, Justin Timberlake
Pure HeroineLorde

Best Rock Album

grammys6Real nominees: 13, Black Sabbath
The Next Day, David Bowie
Mechanical Bull, Kings of Leon
Celebration Day, Led Zeppelin
Psychedelic Pill, Neil Young with Crazy Horse
…Like Clockwork, Queens of the Stone Age

The nominees in this category are a joke, but it’s hard not to admit that there’s not much mainstream rock out there to reward.  I’m predicting a win for Queens of the Stone Age, since it’s the only album on the list that really rocks.  But I prefer the lesser heard rhythms of all my nominees, especially the fiery, punk-tinged music of Frank Turner.

Frank TurnerMy nominees: Tape Deck Heart, Frank Turner
Jake Bugg, Jake Bugg
The Sun as It Comes, The Lonely Wild
Untamed Beast, Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside
I Hate Music, Superchunk

Best Alternative Album

grammys8Real nominees: Trouble Will Find Me, The National
The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You, Neko Case
Hesitation Marks, Nine Inch Nails
Lonerism, Tame Impala
Modern Vampires of the City, Vampire Weekend

I’d be happy with any of these nominees winning, but Vampire Weekend seems to have the most support.  I would’ve liked to have seen Laura Marling get some love for her best album so far in her young career.

grammys9My nominees: Holy Fire, Foals
Heatstroke / The Wind and the War, KaiL Baxley
Harlem River, Kevin Morby
Once I Was an Eagle, Laura Marling
Modern Vampires of the City, Vampire Weekend

Best R&B Album

grammys10Real nominees: Girl on Fire, Alicia Keys
Better, Chrisette Michele
R&B Divas, Faith Evans
Love in the Future, John Legend
Three Kings, TGT

I’ve only listened to the Legend album, but it’s Legend is the biggest name on this list, aside from Keys, who didn’t inspire anyone with Girl on Fire.  I loved Love in the Future, but Goldenheart is more impressive and passionate, and severely underrated.

grammys11My nominees: Anxiety, Autre Ne Veut
Cupid Deluxe, Blood Orange
Goldenheart, Dawn Richard
Love in the Future, John Legend
Woman, Rhye

Best Rap Album

grammys2Real nominees: Nothing Was the Same, Drake
Magna Carta… Holy Grail, Jay-Z
Yeezus, Kanye West
good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kendrick Lamar
The Heist, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

This isn’t a bad group of nominees- except for the fact that they included Jay-Z and Macklemore, but the quality of the other three can’t be denied.  This one should go to Kendrick, and rightfully so.  In my nominees, I’d take out the albums that are bad, and throw in some albums that are good and that would never receive Recording Academy love, since they’re Christian rap albums.

grammys2My nominees: Nothing Was the Same, Drake
Yeezus, Kanye West
good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kendrick Lamar
Talented 10th, Sho Baraka
W.L.A.K., W.L.A.K.

Best Christian Album

grammys12Real nominees (Contemporary Christian Music): We Won’t Be Shaken, Building 429
Burning Lights, Chris Tomlin
All the People Said Amen [Live], Matt Maher
Your Grace Finds Me [Live], Matt Redman
Overcomer, Mandisa

The Recording Academy doesn’t really listen to Christian music, so of course their lineup is generic and not at all representative of what’s going on in Christian music today. But then again, my nominees aren’t either, they’re just personal preferences. However, I included three members of the old guard (Derek Webb, Jars of Clay, and Sandra McCracken), the band that’s ready to take over the Great Christian Band mantle (Gungor), and an up-and-coming indie group (Golden Youth).  Maybe I’m not so bad at this.

grammys13My nominees: I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You, Derek Webb
Quiet Frame; Wild Light, Golden Youth
I Am Mountain, Gungor
Inland, Jars of Clay
Desire Like Dynamite, Sandra McCracken

Best Americana Album

grammys14Real nominees: Songbook, Allen Toussaint
Buddy and Jim, Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale
Old Yellow Moon, Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell
One True Vine, Mavis Staples
Love Has Come for You, Steve Martin & Edie Brickell

Let’s face it: country music doesn’t really deserve a category of its own. The genre has been lackluster for too long; the real vanguard is in folk and Americana music.  Kacey Musgraves and Ashley Monroe could have snuck in here, but these five albums were too strong to give those two the nod just because they’re more traditionally country.  Let’s give Americana the spotlight it deserves for making the quality music that Nashville has been missing.

grammys15My nominees: Dream River, Bill Callahan
The Civil WarsThe Civil Wars
Southeastern, Jason Isbell
American Kid, Patty Griffin
Muchacho, Phosphorescent

Top 5 Albums You Won’t Find on 2013’s Top Ten Lists

2013 is over, and the lists are out and about causing havoc among people who hate Kanye West.  Yes, Yeezus was the most-honored album of 2013 on top 10 lists, which was surprising to me.  West’s terribly-named (or perfectly, I can’t decide) album was obviously critically adored when it came out- though the majority of my non-critic friends hated it.  But I hardly expected it to be the #1 record for so many critics.  But it is, and here we are.  That was 2013.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of 2013 albums that didn’t receive a ton of love.  The following 5 albums are records that I think deserve more attention.  Just because they’re on this list doesn’t mean they will make my Best Albums list when I make one someday in 2014.  It also doesn’t mean they won’t, and it certainly doesn’t mean they don’t stack up next to the likes of Yeezus or Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City or Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories.  In fact, in my estimation, some of these records are (*gasp*) BETTER than those records- talk about blasphemy!  Anyway, in each title I linked to wherever that album is streaming.  Enjoy!

underrated1Dawn Richard, Goldenheart: Alt-R&B has slowly stolen my heart from folk music.  I probably listen to more Americana music than any other genre, but alt-R&B tends to lift me to higher highs than anything with a twang.  Dawn Richard’s debut album was this year’s channel ORANGE, except that no one noticed.  In a just world, 2013 would have been Dawn Richard’s coming-out party.  Instead, she’ll have to settle for mini-accolades from a little-read blogger in Oklahoma.  You’ll always have me, Dawn.  Favorite Song: “Break of Dawn”

underrated2Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience: JT can hardly be characterized as alt-R&B, but he certainly tried in 2013.  Unfortunately, instead of embracing his masterful ear for melody, critics rushed to call The 20/20 Experience overblown and overlong.  It wasn’t helped by the disaster that was Part 2.  But repeat listens have only confirmed what I thought the first time through: The 20/20 Experience is a masterpiece of retro R&B vibes and emotionally honest lyrics.  Favorite Song: “Mirrors”

underrated3KaiL Baxley, Heatstroke / The Wind and the War: I recommended Baxley’s double-EP debut to my friend Scott Bedgood before the end of the year, and he subsequently added it to his Top 10 Albums list.  That’s more a testament to the strength of Baxley’s music than to my musical taste, since Scott and I don’t agree on a ton when it comes to what we put on our iPods.  KaiL Baxley is more than any one genre; he’s best described as singer-songwriter, though that paints a much weaker picture of him than the reality.  Baxley tells full stories in his song, imbuing his lyrics with longing for lost passion and dreams.  He balances sensitivity with directness, giving his often dreamlike tunes a solid foundation.  Favorite Song: “HeatStroke”

underrated4Sandra McCracken, Desire Like Dynamite: Christian music predictably never appears on mainstream top 10 lists, but even Christian outlets sidestepped Sandra McCracken’s great Desire Like Dynamite.  Maybe they simply forgot, since it was released all the way back in February.  But that’s hard to excuse, since McCracken and husband Derek Webb are two of the most prolific and influential artists in the Christian music scene.  More likely, everyone just totally missed the target on this one, mistaking McCracken’s low-key vibe for a lack of substance.  In reality, this thoughtfully produced collection of folk music was one of the few creative endeavors in 2013 that consistently pointed me to my hope in God’s will for the world.  Favorite Song: “Hourglass”

underrated5W.L.A.K., W.L.A.K.: If “underrated” and “overlooked” are the key adjectives in this post, then W.L.A.K. are this post’s MVPs.  W.L.A.K. consists of Alex Faith, Christon Gray, Dre Murray, and Swoope, rappers that have perennially assisted the more well-known artists of Reach Records on several of their most potent tracks.  But on their self-titled debut, W.L.A.K. surpass their more famous counterparts in both audacity and humility.  The success of their collaboration is built fully on the power of their teamwork and on their ultimate desire to center their music on God’s glory.  Favorite Song: “Long Way Down”

*All of my friends are non-critics.  I am a non-critic.

October’s Notable Music

Hits

october1Lorde, Pure Heroine: Let’s just get this out of the way early: “Royals” is one of the very best songs of the year, maybe THE song of the year.  It’s the perfect balance of what’s hot right now and what’s indie right now, which is also a great way to describe the album.  Her voice isn’t that special, and a special voice seems to be the quality we most desire in our female artists, for better or for worse.  But Lorde has a hand in writing all her songs; she mixes cynicism about pop culture with a wise sincerity, which is how she can easily transition from the line “we’re on each other’s team” to “I’m kind of over getting told to throw my hands up in the air.” They say the best way to critique a movie is to make another movie; Lorde, who is only 17 (!), proves this is true for albums too.

october2Pearl Jam, Lightning Bolt: This one’s a hit for me insofar as I love Pearl Jam’s early records, and this is a nice addition to them; their sound hasn’t changed much over the years, and the melodies on this one are a sight better than the hooks on their last two albums.  If that doesn’t sound enthusiastic enough to qualify as a hit, that’s not how I mean it, I swear.  I love this album; but it doesn’t represent a drastic leap forward or a step back.  Instead, it’s a wonderful representation of how Pearl Jam’s sound has expanded over the years from when they first broke into the grunge scene in Seattle.  A piano makes an appearance and several songs lean toward a more atmospheric aura.  But put this next to Vitalogy, Vs., Ten, and it absolutely holds up.  They may have this rock music thing down.

october3Pusha T, My Name Is My Name: I’m not sure what it says about me that I included an album about selling cocaine in my hits for last month.  But Pusha T has been making music about dealing crack for longer than I’ve even been into music, so maybe he deserves the benefit of my doubt.  This is the first time Push sounds like he’s considering the consequences of his actions, especially on the soulful songs “Hold On” and “40 Acres”.  The standout “Nosetalgia” probably has the best name ever for a song about cocaine.  It deserves to be considered one of the best songs of the year, not because there’s anything admirable about what Push and guest Kendrick Lamar cover in their verses, but because no other rap song chronicles the experience of selling crack (or the feeling that selling it was necessary) quite like this one- and that includes those great Clipse songs from the mid-2000s.  (Disclaimer: There is definite usage of explicit language on this album, as well as copious references to the procuring, selling, and usage of drugs.)

Misses

october4The Avett Brothers, Magpie and the Dandelion: Goodness, what happened to the Avett Brothers?  It’s not like they were the most insightful band in the world before, but over their past two albums, this one included, they’ve become the most cloying band in folk music.  I and Love and You is a modern classic, and they participated in one of the great moments for twang in the 21st century when they teamed up with Bob Dylan and Mumford & Sons at the 2011 Grammys, but now they’re singing lines like “Even though I know there’s hope in every morning song, you have to find that melody alone.”  Those are the kinds of pandering lyrics that would have made Cat Stevens or the Carpenters cringe.  The Avett Brothers would do well to find those two acts’ knack for selling kitsch as an organic commodity rather than wholesale and bargain-bin.

october5Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience – 2 of 2: JT’s 2 of 2 is everything The 20/20 Experience threatened to be but avoided.  It’s overlong, overproduced, and overblown.  It’s over-everything, and I’m over it.

Paul McCartney, New: New isn’t a bad record, but it encapsulates everything you expect a Paul McCartney album to be, and especially the negative aspects, which makes it a disappointment.  After listening to several of Macca’s albums, you begin to appreciate John Lennon’s frustrations with october6McCartney as a songwriter.  There’s no denying that Paul McCartney has written some of the world’s best pop songs (both in the Beatles and outside of them).  But his focus on building catchy, quirky hooks can sometimes belie his ability to connect with people.  A lot of New sounds like he was having fun performing the songs, but nothing sounds as full of life as his biggest hits or as immediate as his last album of originals, Memory Almost Full.  But he’s Sir Paul McCartney, so who will hold it against him?

Under the Radar

october7Dead Gaze, Brain Holiday: Dead Gaze may have started out as a guy named Cole making shoegaze music on his laptop in his bedroom, but now that he’s got a band in a studio, he sounds like the greatest throwback to ‘90s rock since Surfer Blood’s first album.  ‘90s nostalgia appears to be in now, doesn’t it?  Well, Dead Gaze stands apart from the crowd in two ways; one, you probably won’t hear about them other than reading this little blurb right here.  And two, their new album is full of great songs from beginning to end that champion youthful creativity.  Come for the alternative revival, stay for the brass band that bolsters standout track “Runnin’ on the Moon”.

october8The Hawk in Paris, Freaks: Dan Haseltine didn’t need another great record this year- he already has Jars of Clay’s sublime Inland to his name.  But this side project has its own distinct charms to offer.  Billed as a mix between acoustic and electronic elements, The Hawk in Paris  is Haseltine’s outlet for more pop-oriented music, rather than the contemplative folk-rock Jars of Clay fans are used to.  The catchy hooks of “Beg for Love” and “Put Your Arms Around Me” are evidence of this, but there is profundity to be found, such as in the title song’s ode to nonconformity and the exploration of the feeling of finality after a breakup in “Curse the Love Songs”.  While the similarities to Jars of Clay are inevitable, The Hawk in Paris distinguishes itself with earworms and production that is unmistakably not the product of a collaborative band, but still a whole product.

october9Mutual Benefit, Love’s Crushing Diamond: I know next to nothing about Mutual Benefit other than that this is a lovely album, full of the kind of dream-pop that sounds like it was almost created by accident.  Gems like this don’t just pop up in this manner every day, fully formed and cut to perfection.  Even Dead Gaze, which I love, seems raw and not set in its ways.  Mutual Benefit, on the other hand, sounds like they were found encased in amber, a gift from the music gods, smiling down on us.  If all of this sounds  bit too effusive for you, just go to their bandcamp page and enjoy; after you’re done basking in their sound, you’ll see what I’m talking about.

Off the Grid

october10Arcade Fire, Reflektor: This section belongs to any release about which I just haven’t made up my mind yet.  Arcade Fire is both deceptively indie and popular.  They’ve enjoyed indie cred from Funeral through Neon Bible to The Suburbs (an Album of the Year winner at the Grammys in 2011, which would matter if 5 of the previous 10 winners weren’t completely left-field choices that merited little to no reaction among the general populace), but the average participant in a trivia night at your local bar wouldn’t know them from Vampire Weekend (they’re the ones from Canada, right?).  This album is decidedly not indie nor will it be popular.  I don’t know what I think about.  There are no big, sweeping hooks of the kind that I loved from previous works.  Instead, Reflektor boasts a singular ambition that trumps anything Arcade Fire has attempted up to this point.  Judgment officially reserved till I give it another ten or so listens, or until my head explodes after listening to the eleven-minute “Supersymmetry” for the sixth time.

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