Music Bummys: Best Albums of 2015

Music Bummys: Best Albums of 2015

Top Ten Albums

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another Fifteen

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

Past Top Tens

2014

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

2013

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

2012

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

2011

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

2010

Titus Andronicus, The Monitor
Arcade Fire, The Suburbs
Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
The Black Keys, Brothers
Andrew Peterson, Counting Stars
Gungor, Beautiful Things
Surfer Blood, Astro Coast
Jamey Johnson, The Guitar Song
The National, High Violet
The Tallest Man on Earth, The Wild Hunt

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Music Bummys: Best Songs of 2015

Music Bummys: Best Songs of 2015

Top Twenty-Five: 25-11

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Another Twenty-Five

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

Past Top Tens

2014

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

2013

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

2012

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

2011

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

2010

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

The 2016 Grammys and the Morning-After Anger

I wrote over at Thirty-Eight Minutes about how to process Taylor Swift’s Album of the Year win over Kendrick Lamar. Below is an excerpt. Follow this link to read the rest.

You’ll be easily forgiven if you decided to skip watching last night’s 58thGrammy Awards. I’m not going to recap the entire awards show, because recapping something that lasted 810 hours sounds like a lot of work. Instead I’ll focus on the big moment, the one that had Twitter all aflame, the one that perhaps should have had me seething but instead just made me further resigned: Taylor Swift’s 1989 beat out Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly for Album of the Year.

I saw a lot of angry people on Twitter afterwards; chances are, if you’re reading this, you were one of them. I’m not going to tell you how to feel, but allow me to provide a little context, first in favor of what happened and then in condemnation of it…

If I Ran the 2016 Grammys

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

A few ground rules:

1) I’ll give the real nominees with my prediction for the winner in bold. Then I’ll give you who I would have nominated with my choice for the best in the group in bold.

2) We all know the October 1st, 2014-September 30th, 2015 qualifying dates are stupid, but we’re going to keep them in the interest of chaos. I can’t fix everything about the Grammys. So no 25, but 1989 (from 2014, but released after October 1st, 2014) is fair game.

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

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

5) New rule this year! Forget the 5-nominee limit! Sometimes the Grammys do this; a genre will have enough contenders that they’ll fit 6 nominees into one category. I’ve often wondered why more award shows don’t open categories a bit more. If there are enough albums that truly deserve the be in the conversation, why not include them and draw more attention to more great music? Let’s have anarchy!

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Album of the Year

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

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

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

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Record of the Year

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

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

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

Song of the Year

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

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

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

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Best New Artist

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

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

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

Best Pop Album

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

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

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

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Best Rock Album

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

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

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

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Best Alternative Album

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

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

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

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Best R&B Album

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

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

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

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Best Rap Album

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

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

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

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Best Christian Album

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

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

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

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Best Americana Album

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

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

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

Tentative Top Tens for 2015

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

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

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

FURY ROAD

Movies

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

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Albums

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

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Best Book I Read This Year

Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering by Tim Keller

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Best Comic Series I Read This Year

The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman

Best TV Series I Watched This Year

Hannibal

Best Music of 2015 So Far

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

Albums

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

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

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

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

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

Songs

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

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

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

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

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

Most Anticipated Albums of (the rest of) 2015

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

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

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

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

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

To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar

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I was in the car last summer with my friend and a Beatles song came on. In light of this story, it might be kind of shameful that I don’t remember which song it was, but I do remember that it was a relatively famous one, one that you’d hear on a Greatest Hits compilation. My friend who was in the car with me is black, the importance of which will become apparent in a moment. I asked this friend if he liked the Beatles. He told me he’d never really listened to them. I jerked the steering wheel and crashed into the side of a Wendy’s.

Okay, not really, but I probably did jerk the steering wheel just a little bit. I asked him if he knew the song that was on, and he said no. I slammed on the brakes and immediate was rear-ended causing a ten-car pile—

Okay, okay. The point stands, though. The Beatles, arguably the greatest rock band in the history of pop music, were as inconsequential to my friend as if they had never existed. Now, we can argue about the Beatles’ quality, but it would be hard to argue against their influence. Pop music was irreversibly altered by their music. Only the Beatles could inspire such a hyperbolic statement without anyone blinking an eye when they read it.

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At the time, I was struck by the idea that the disparity between my love for the Beatles and my friend’s indifference to them had to be linked to the difference in our races. I’m not saying the Beatles don’t have black fans or that all white people like the Beatles. But my friend and I gravitate toward different music, and the people that make our preferred music tend to look a lot like us. He tends to gravitate toward hip-hop and R&B, and while I also enjoy those genres, I tend to listen more to rock and alternative. Again, neither of us are representative of every single person in our respective races, but I do think there’s something to the idea that black culture venerates different forms of artistry than white culture.

Up until that moment in the car, I don’t think it had quite hit me how separate black culture and white culture can be from one another. Come to think of it, I grew up listening to largely all white music. I discovered some black artists later on in high school and college, and I consider some of them among my favorites. But overall, my entire musical experience growing up was white. Call me naïve, but I think it took me until last summer to realize how helpless I am when it comes to writing about black music.

So now we come to Kendrick Lamar and his new album, To Pimp a Butterfly. No matter your race, Butterfly is a tough nut to crack. It’s 16 tracks long, and each track is dense with information. But it was specifically challenging for me to listen to. There are crucial references to Kunta Kinte, a real-life man from Gambia whose life was immortalized in a 40-year-old TV miniseries I’ve never seen; Zulu, an ethnic group that populates wide swaths of southern Africa; and the origins of the word “ni—a”, which, incidentally, also makes plenty of appearances on this album- just so you know, if hearing black people use that word offends you.

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Lamar’s last album, good kid, m.A.A.d city, was one of the more exciting albums in recent memory, a self-contained autobiography about Kendrick’s coming-of-age in Compton. On good kid, as well as on his debut, Section.80, Lamar demonstrated a knack for bending his voice to the will of the record. He sounds different on every track, chirping over a freestyle beat like “Backseat Freestyle” and sliding all over the drunken anthem “Swimming Pools (Drank)”. good kid had it all as a complete album statement and as a collection of individual songs that managed to become hits.

Each song on Butterfly sort of meanders from beginning to end. The closest comparison is Andre 3000’s side of Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, even down the dependence on neo-jazz. The difference is that where Andre’s vision on Love Below was muddled, Lamar’s is always clear. Andre was reaching for the same acid highs of enlightenment in love that Jimi Hendrix’s guitar-playing achieved. Kendrick just wants to tell his story.

Butterfly does tip its hat to hip-hop’s history several times, shouting out Kendrick’s L.A. predecessors Snoop and Dre, with Snoop even guesting on a song. The album spends a lot of time in Compton, a city unfortunately known in popular culture more for its storied gang culture than its hip-hop. Kendrick has a complicated relationship with his hometown; what famous person doesn’t? But Compton is a more complicated place than your average hometown, and Kendrick’s conflict with Compton comes to a head near the end of Butterfly on the three-song opus of “The Blacker the Berry”, “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)”, and “i”.

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It’s here that I have to be careful. You see, I want to say that Kendrick Lamar is expressing something very personal on this album, a statement that climaxes with those three songs. I want to say that he’s exorcising personal demons through both the biting lyrics and the psychedelic instrumentation. I want to say that the inner conflict that he’s projecting effectively stands in for the black experience as a whole.

But that’s too easy. That’s the reading of a white man with little to no experience with black culture, and it’s an analysis that’s essentially meaningless coming from that white man. I’m not saying I can’t comment on To Pimp a Butterfly. I think it’s a masterpiece. I think it is an epic statement of the black experience in America. I’ll listen to it at least a hundred more times before the end of the year. But I can’t pretend to analyze it any further or to assign to it importance that I can’t wrap my head around. Lamar’s created a singularly black experience that I can enjoy, but I can’t get inside of it.

I’m also not saying that Kendrick didn’t make this with a white audience in mind. I think Kendrick’s smarter than that. I think he’s aware that people repurposed his songs from good kid as party anthems, singing “Get a swimming pool full of liquor, then you dive in it” lustily, and I think he knows a lot of those people were white. White people are going to listen to Butterfly, and they’re going to have their stereotype of “angry black men” turned on its head. It’s precisely Butterfly’s distinct blackness that should compel anyone who’s white to dive into it. There are few more effective ways to grow empathy in your heart than art as personal as this.

I have a feeling that Kendrick, like Kanye, will eventually be perceived as an artist with influence on the level of The Beatles, and I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. Kanye certainly doesn’t think it’s an exaggeration; he’s got a Beatle on two of his newest singles. Kendrick doesn’t think it’s an exaggeration; Butterfly feels like the album of an artist reaching for importance, grabbing it, and wringing it dry. It’s an album made by and for black people, but no one needs to hear it more than white people.