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

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Music Bummys 2013: Best Songs of 2012

[It’s okay to mourn- 2012 was a long time ago, and we’re well into 2013, which is not the year that 2012 was.  Indeed, 2012 was the best year for pop culture in a long time- at least since 2009.  There wasn’t a runaway favorite in the music scene like Adele’s 21 in 2011,  but that’s because there were so many great offerings from 2012.  There wasn’t a clear favorite in Hollywood like…well, there wasn’t a clear favorite in 2011 either, was there?  But that was for lack of quality, whereas in 2012 we were inundated with quality movies the entire year.  Ah, the good old days.  Excuse me while I take out my teeth and reach for my prune juice.

2012 was a banner year, and what better time to look back at it than 9 months later?  No, seriously.  You don’t think so?  That’s okay.  Honestly, if I could, I’d do these Bummys lists right at the beginning of the year, but when January rolls around, I still have so many movies to watch and so much music to listen to, I can’t make a year-end list.  So I have to settle for what in our culture of immediacy amounts to a retrospective, akin to those montages at the Oscars for the celebrities that passed away that year.  We look back in fondness on the historic year of 2012; may the entire cast of Cloud Atlas rest in peace.]

As far as songs go, 2012 didn’t have one dominant song of the year, as far as popular music goes.  There was no “Someone Like You” or “Runaway” or even “My Girls” for the hipster crowd.  You may bring up “Call Me Maybe” or “Somebody That I Used to Know”, and while I thought for sure those would at least fall in my top 25, they didn’t make the cut.  I love those songs, but 2012 was a GREAT year for music, so, sorry, Canada and Australia.  As for Christian music, 2012 was an unusually big year; half of my top ten are Christian songs.

Top Songs of 2012

alabamashakes10. “Hold On” by Alabama Shakes: I suppose you could lump Alabama Shakes in with The White Stripes and The Black Keys as some have done, insofar as all three share a garage blues rock sensibility.  But to do that is almost to dismiss Alabama Shakes for being derivative, and then you’d miss out on what separates AS from their elder statesmen, and that’s youth.  But youth isn’t even the right word for it, since both Jack White and the Keys still make music with a distinctly virile feel.  The youth that is on display in the Shakes’ music (and most notably on “Hold On”, the perfect album opener on their thickfreak Boys & Girls) is unashamed of its feelings, unabashed in its embrace of adolescent dreaming.  When frontwoman Brittany Howard wails “I don’t wanna wait!” on the chorus, she’s channeling a kind of youthful desire that no one else today is tapping into.

christopherpaulstelling9. “Mourning Train to Memphis” by Christopher Paul Stelling: If “Hold On” is the young woman song, “Mourning Train to Memphis” is the old man song.  Where Alabama Shakes thrive on childlike exuberance, Stelling flourishes when he fully dives into existential lamentation.  I’ve been listening to this song for a year now, and it never fails to stir that pit in my stomach that only appears when I’m deeply, emotionally wounded.  What, that doesn’t make you want to listen to this song?  Well, I’m sure you will if I tell you that it’s about a beloved geriatric dying of cancer and being buried.  No?  Well, your loss; you’re missing out on one of the best folk songs in recent memory.  More deep stomach pits for me.

frankocean8. “Bad Religion” by Frank Ocean: There are probably about three or four other songs from channel ORANGE that I could substitute for this song depending on which day of the week you ask me.  Monday is more of a “Pyramids” day.  Friday I’ll probably be leaning toward “Super Rich Kids” and getting ready for a joy ride in Daddy’s Jaguar.  “Thinking Bout You” could fit on Wednesday, I guess (this gimmick is running out of steam).  But “Bad Religion” takes the rest of the days.  It’s the best showcase of Ocean’s smooth vocals, sure, but it also happens to be the track where he comes close to revealing what’s in the heart of his soul.  I understand that this is about Ocean being in love with a man, and while I don’t support that or believe it’s right, I appreciate that he bares his inner thoughts and fears to us so completely.  Who isn’t afraid that “the one” won’t love them?  Would that we could all sound so beautiful when we’re in despair.

benjamindunn7. “When We Were Young” by Benjamin Dunn & the Animal Orchestra: Goodness gracious me!  I need a playground, stat.  This song makes me feel like a kid again, or at least it makes me wish that I could remember what it feels like to be a kid.  I know I said that no one else was tapping into youthful desire like Alabama Shakes, and, well…I stand by that statement completely!  Benjamin Dunn & whoever the Animal Orchestra is aren’t really encapsulating youthful desire, they’re capturing what it feels like to remember it.  And they’re doing it in one of the catchiest choruses of any year, let alone 2012.

andrewpeterson6. “Day by Day” by Andrew Peterson: On first listen, I didn’t think much of “Day by Day”.  There are so many good songs on Peterson’s Light for the Lost Boy that it kind of got lost in the shuffle.  But as I repeatedly played the album again and again in my car, “Day by Day” began to jump out at me.  It’s like how everyone likes The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when they first read the Narnia books, and The Magician’s Nephew is kind of boring, but as you read them multiple times, The Magician’s Nephew stands out as one of the most inventive and wise of the series.  “Day by Day” is like that.  Day after day of listening to it made the song grow on me. Now I’m fully in love with its singular forward motion, the perceptive lyrics about missing your childhood, the wanting so badly to be made new each and every day.  Maybe it’s because I’m at such a crossroads in my life, and the theme of time passing me by on my way to heaven really strikes a chord with me.  But Peterson’s song is a reminder that the mundanity of life on Earth points to a glorious eternity when the passing of the days will only produce more and more joy.  I know that message is not just for me.

usher5. “Climax” by Usher: A song by Usher called “Climax” is begging to not be taken seriously.  But this is the best, and weirdest, song that Usher has ever made.  The structure isn’t familiar to pop or hip-hop; it’s distinctly R&B, but the kind of R&B that they’re playing on the moon somewhere*.  If the title “Climax” sounds like it should belong to an ecstatic anthem to sex and, you know, what happens during sex, the actual song is best enjoyed without thinking about the possible humor in the double entendre.  When accepted fully as a serious song, “Climax” is heartwrenching and will make you want to remain celibate for fear of being as hurt as Usher sounds.  Though, once again, like in “Bad Religion”, if this is what getting burned by love sounds like, I should’ve recorded more alt-R&B songs in high school.

lecrae4. “Church Clothes” by Lecrae: This is the shortest song on this list, and it’s also the one most likely to burn a hole in your brain.  This is one that sticks with you.  Lecrae has never been one to mince words, but on this track (off his mixtape by the same name) he’s spitting real talk of the realest sort.  Over a delightfully retro and makeshift beat that intermittently morphs into a souled-out burner, Lecrae pulls off something remarkable.  “Church Clothes” starts out as a diatribe against everything we should hate about hypocritical churches, things we can all agree give us pause.  Then Lecrae deftly turns the microscope back on us and demolishes all the real reasons why we don’t give ourselves to the church.  Crae’s implication is that our problems with the church are legitimate, but they become excuses for why we don’t submit to God and start serving the church, which has always been God’s vessel for bringing His kingdom in.  Point taken, Lecrae.

davidramirez3. “Fire of Time” by David Ramirez: If Johnny Cash were alive today, he would have made this song, and it would have received the attention that Ramirez’s version deserves.  As it is, this is the best Johnny Cash song he never recorded, and the best song Ramirez has (though it has competition there- see below).  My hope is that Ramirez hasn’t really been in the place that he’s writing from in this song, but it’s far too genuine for that to be the case.  The man in this song has chased after the fleeting desires of this world and become addicted, and, miraculously, someone, probably a woman, has broken through his walls and is pulling him out.  “Fire of Time” is simple; but it doesn’t have to be anything more.

triplee2. “One Sixteen (feat. KB & Andy Mineo)” by Trip Lee: Oh my word this song is amazing.  There’s not a single thing about this song that isn’t awesome.  Every bar is basically a hook.  Which, in a twisted way, makes this the “Ignition [Remix]” of rap songs.  That part where Trip sneaks “man” onto the end of his verse to make the phrase “rocket man” like we wouldn’t notice.  That part where KB compares God to Bo Peep.  That part where Trip makes an astute basketball reference.  That part where KB rhymes “murder does” with “surge of us” and “churches up” because duh.  That part where Andy Mineo raps and kills everyone else in the world.  Best rap song ever?  Okay, that’s an unnecessary argument that I don’t want to get into.  …but maybe?

jimmyneedham1. “Clear the Stage” by Jimmy Needham: For eight years now, Jimmy Needham has been writing songs that toe the line between CCM** and R&B like someone who isn’t concerned with the status quo or that oldfangled thing called the radio that we used to listen to when we were kids.  Jimmy’s songs are funky and full of life, with lyrics that cut to the core of the Gospel and what it looks like to worship the Lord in the midst of a messed up world.  “Clear the Stage” isn’t funky or playful. In fact, it’s a ballad with piano and synth strings and a swelling chorus that actually would fit right in on Air1.  It goes along with the rest of Jimmy’s most recent album (also called Clear the Stage) in that it tends to be geared more towards a more radio-friendly sound.  It also happens to be the best song he’s ever recorded.  What has always made Jimmy a cut above the rest was his brutal honesty.  “Clear the Stage” cuts through the crap and reminds you that you’re full of it, you don’t really think about those words you sing at church, and it’s time you really began to worship your Father in the Spirit.  It’s one thing to say those things; it’s another to command it as forcefully as Needham does here.  But his voice, always soulful, reveals a heart that is just as guilty as ours.  Jimmy knows he has idols; “Clear the Stage” is how he purges them.  And he passionately invites us to join him.

*You know, where there are aliens who are secretly into R. Kelly and Pharrell.  These aliens aren’t interested in blowing up the White House.  But they might consider it if Jamie Foxx was president, since no one in the universe is a fan of “Blame It”.

**That’s Christian Contemporary Music for those of you who like good music.

Fifteen More Songs (in alphabetic order)
Anaïs Mitchell: “Young Man in America”
Bruce Springsteen: “Land of Hope and Dreams”
Frank Ocean: “Thinkin Bout You”
Icona Pop: “I Love It (feat. Charli XCX)”
Japandroids: “The House That Heaven Built”
Kacey Musgraves: “Merry Go ‘Round”
Kendrick Lamar: “B*tch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”
Matt Mays: “Indio”
Miguel: “Adorn”
The Olive Tree: “A Larger Portion”
Palma Violets: “Best of Friends”
Phosphorescent: “Song for Zula”
Propaganda: “Forgive Me for Asking”
Solange: “Losing You”
Taylor Swift: “I Knew You Were Trouble”

Top Songs of 2013 (So Far, in alphabetic order)

Ashley Monroe, “Like a Rose”: Kacey Musgraves took 2012 by force from her authentic country contemporaries, but Ashley Monroe owns 2013 so far with this clever, coming-of-age ballad.

Daft Punk, “Get Lucky (feat. Pharrell Williams)”: Robin Thicke thinks he reigned over summer 2013, and maybe officially he did.  But we all know who we’re bowing down to when Alan Thicke’s son isn’t looking, and they would never let Miley twerk all up on them.

David Ramirez, “The Bad Days”: His “Fire of Time” very nearly stole best song honors from Jimmy Needham in 2012; his “The Bad Days” is a dark horse contender for 2013.  And I’ll bet this blog is the only place you’ve heard of him; what a shame.

Justin Timberlake, “Mirrors”: The best pop song of the year, because JT so effortlessly fuses his pop-funk with weighty emotions that feel universal.

Vampire Weekend, “Diane Young”: Vampire Weekend are no strangers to great hooks, but this might be their most infectious and inventive one yet.

Catching Up in 25 Words and No Less

There’s a glut of movies, albums, and comic books that I wanted to write about over last few months but didn’t have the chance, since I was graduating from graduate school, looking for a job, and getting married in a very short span.  My wife (!) and I got back from our honeymoon last Tuesday, and since then we’ve been trying to settle into our new apartment just a few hundred yards north of OU’s campus.  This has consisted of making trips to return gifts, throwing away countless boxes and reams of wrapping paper, and constantly adjusting the settings on our boxy window air conditioners.  Yes, this is our first apartment.  I’m loving it.

After all that, I have a little time to look back on the year and give you a glimpse at my thoughts on some of the albums I’ve bought and movies I’ve seen in theatres.  I also thought I’d add in a few segments on comic books I’ve recently read, since that’s really all I’ve been reading for the past couple of months.  I’ll stick to more obscure titles you’re less likely to have heard of, so basically no superheroes (though I have read some great superhero books lately as well- Mark Waid’s Daredevil, Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye, Scott Snyder’s Batman, Brian Azzarello’s Wonder Woman).  I’ll write about all that life change stuff here in a few days.  For now, allow me to share a few words about pop culture, because it’s been too long.  I guess the normal thing to do would be to go with a “25 words or less” theme, but I think it’ll be more fun to have to write 25 words exactly for every item.  But fun is relative, so we’ll see.

pattygriffin

American Kid, Patty Griffin: Griffin has long been one of my favorites.  With this, she refines as well as expands both her Americana sound and her deeply felt stories.

samamidon

Bright Sunny South, Sam Amidon: A spare album of mainly traditionals (but also including covers of Mariah Carey and Tim McGraw songs) that morphs songs into beautiful, melancholy folk beauty.

mattmaysCoyote, Matt Mays: An inventive and classic-sounding rock album that pulses with a yearning for freedom.  This would demand radio play if rock radio weren’t dead and gone.

fataleFatale: I never knew I had been longing for a horror noir comic book series until I picked up this deliciously grimy book by Ed Brubaker.

jakebuggJake Bugg, Jake Bugg: As if the Dylan comparisons (which he wears well, btw) weren’t ridiculous enough praise, try this little tidbit: the man was only born in 1994.

lockeandkeyLocke & Key: Written by Stephen King’s progeny, Joe Hill, this genre-defying book is my favorite ongoing series, and I don’t even think I’ve reached the story’s climax yet.

manofsteelMan of Steel: Upon seeing it, I thought this Superman reboot was a good action movie.  Looking back, the less I like it; it’s really just good action.

monstersuniversity1Monsters University: A clever and heartwarming prequel to a classic Pixar hit with insight into what makes friendships tick. Better than Cars 2, not Toy Story 3.

nowyouseemeNow You See Me: They’re calling it a surprise hit; I was certainly surprised by how much I liked this magicians’ Robin-Hood-by-way-of-Vegas pop mystery even though it aims low. (Yes, I’m counting that hyphenated monster as one word. No, I don’t care.)

startrekintodarkness1Star Trek into Darkness: A science fiction, popcorn movie masterpiece. Director Abrams didn’t reinvent the wheel, but he reached higher in theme and action; he and his cast succeeded.

theunwritten The Unwritten: An endlessly inventive take by Mike Carey on a Harry-Potter-like character come to life (or something like that…) that overflows with its love for literature.

wlakW.L.A.K., W.L.A.K.: Christian rap keeps getting better and better, and W.L.A.K. has perennial featured artists like Swoope and Christon Gray rivaling the titans from start to finish.