Tentative Top Tens for 2014

If you’re a regular reader of Coulda Been a Contender (and that’s a big if), you know I don’t really complete my Top Ten lists until around September of the next year. I like some remove from the end-of-year list boom and awards season fever, and it gives me a lot more time to catch up on everything I missed. But it seems wrong not to release some sort of list, so I’m going to tentatively present my Top Ten movies and albums. I don’t keep up with reading or TV as much as I like, but I’ll go ahead and throw in a book and show at the end. Neither of them are from this year, but whatever.

I’ll write plenty about most of these when I do the actual Bummys, or I’ve already written about them. If I have, the link to what I wrote will be in the title.

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Movies

10. Ernest & Celestine
9. How to Train Your Dragon 2
8. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
7. Interstellar
6. The Lego Movie
5. The Grand Budapest Hotel
4. Blue Ruin
3. Guardians of the Galaxy
2. Snowpiercer
1. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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Albums

10. Crimson Cord, Propaganda
9. There’s a Light, Liz Vice
8. 1989, Taylor Swift
7. Platinum, Miranda Lambert
6. The Art of Joy, Jackie Hill Perry
5. Stay Gold, First Aid Kit
4. Borderland, John Mark McMillan
3. Rise, Trip Lee
2. Are We There, Sharon Van Etten
1. Lost in the Dream, The War on Drugs

Best Book I Read This Year

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Best TV Show I Watched This Year

The Wire

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October’s Notable Music

Hits

october1Kevin Morby, Still Life: Remember that artist we all said was the next Bob Dylan? Oh, you’re right, we’ve had at least one of those every year since Dylan converted to Christianity. I’ve already jinxed Kevin Morby by even mentioning the Bard’s name. But Morby has the same penchant for surreal imagery in the midst of simple folk songs. Last year’s Harlem River was more of a statement with better hooks, but Still Life finds Morby trying different things with his production and song structure, risk-taking that pays off across the scope of only his second solo record since leaving the great freak-folk band Woods. Favorite song: “Parade”

october2Taylor Swift, 1989: I didn’t know it would come to this. In my formative years, when I was cutting my teeth on classic rock and hipster indie music in college, I couldn’t have foreseen that I would eventually become a Taylor Swift defender. But if this is my lot, so be it. This is the first Taylor album that actually sounds like she’s exorcised her relationship demons, insofar as every song was weighed down by the baggage of who she wrote it about. On 1989, there are plenty of songs about love, but the focus is far less on the stories and much more on the pop music. Also, while I had nothing against country-music Taylor, she was growing stale. After Red and now 1989, pop-music Taylor is flourishing. Favorite song that isn’t “Shake It Off” or “Out of the Woods”: “Wildest Dreams”

october3Trip Lee, Rise: The last great year for Christian rap was only two years ago, when Lecrae dropped Gravity, his best record yet, and Trip Lee leapt into the national scene with The Good Life. Lo and behold, 2014 has been another great year for Christian rap, and Lecrae and Trip are again at the forefront of the conversation with new albums. This time Trip Lee may have Lecrae beat though. But it’s a competition neither cares much about, as Trip won’t shy away from telling you that he only wants to boast about God [link to Scott’s interview]. That sentiment is all over his new album, and that confidence Trip has in God’s promises lends his songs an appealing surety. The Good Life felt like Trip exploring the boundaries of what he could do; Rise is Trip strolling along them, in complete control of his gifts. Favorite song: “Shweet”

Misses

october4Sallie Ford, Slap Back: Last year, Sallie Ford’s Untamed Beast with her band The Sound Outside was one of the best rock records of the year, like the Black Keys with an extra edge. But, for some reason, Ford broke the band up and formed a new group of all women. This is an exciting new direction; I was looking forward to a throwback to the riot grrrl bands of the ‘90s. But Slap Back falls short of all expectations you could have. It doesn’t ever fully rock out, the songs feels half-written, and Ford’s voice doesn’t have nearly the same pop as Untamed Beast. What a shame.

Under the Radar

october5Jason Barrows, Islands of My Soul: As introspective a record as you’ll find in the musical landscape these days, Jason Barrows has turned folk and synth music on their heads to reach a compromise between the two. Over acoustic guitars backed by subtle synth tones and percussion, Barrows mines faith for any deeper personal meaning it might have for him if he could just put it into words. He doesn’t mince words about faith’s complexities (invoking pretty harsh imagery on the haunting “License to Kill” and the propulsive “Up from the Sea”), but the music is open enough to leave room for hope. Favorite song: “Hearts on Fire”

october6Diamond District, March on Washington: I knew nothing about D.C. rap before listening to Diamond District’s new album. Diamond District’s March on Washington is buoyant and intelligent, full of insight on all kinds of, shall we say, capitol offenses. I still have no idea if Diamond District is representative of the city’s rap style. But if they are, I can’t wait to hear more. Favorite song: “Lost Cause”

Music Bummys 2013: Best Albums of 2012

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

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

Interestingly, I’ve already done a Top 10 Albums of 2012 list, at the end of the year, in conjunction with my friend’s blog.  Also interesting: four albums that made an appearance on that list don’t show up on this one.  I guess my perspective changed a little bit.  Two folk albums, the Vespers’ The Fourth Wall and Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Leaving Eden, were replaced by a rap album and a Christian electronic album, something I definitely didn’t expect.  Trip Lee fell to the “Fifteen More” category.  And Alabama Shakes, my beloved Alabama Shakes, were replaced by a brother duo from Texas that no one’s heard of.  I’m not sure what I was thinking, but I’m sure of one thing: this is the right list.

Top Albums of 2012

kendricklamar10. Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d city: A lot of albums profess to be concept albums, LPs with a plot and characters, but the majority end up having the vague outline of a story rather than the concrete and significant details that add weight to a narrative (see: American Idiot and The Black Parade, both great albums, but not great concept albums).  Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city might be the most fully fleshed-out concept album I’ve ever heard.  It helps that Lamar’s focus on his concept album is more specific than most; good kid is a chronicle of one evening in Lamar’s life out on the streets with his friends while they cruise around in his parents’ van.  From this one evening comes a treasure trove of insight about his lack of pleasure in his hedonistic but monotonous lifestyle (“Swimming Pools (Drank)”), his neverending search for escape (“B*tch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”), and his dependence on his rapping for fulfillment (“Poetic Justice”).  But the overall takeaways from good kid are Lamar’s incredible self-awareness as he quotes Scripture and prayers in the midst of his own sinfulness, as well as the cyclical culture of the streets, mirrored in the way the record ends right where it began, implying that the sin and tragedy Kendrick places before us is only going to keep going.

benjamindunn9. Benjamin Dunn & the Animal Orchestra, Fable: If you had given up on Christian music before 2012 (and who could blame you, really…), you picked a terrible time to do it.  Independent Christian music is on the rise, with the help of Derek Webb’s NoiseTrade website, which coincidentally just released an offer for Benjamin Dunn’s discography for free (the offer’s over, btw- it was only a week; sorry, you snooze, you lose).  Benjamin Dunn synthesizes rock and electronic music into a wildly satisfying blend of happiness.  The music would induce rapture on its own, but Dunn has paired it with a libretto that draws inspiration from C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books both in its characters and in its themes.  Characters like Eustace and Caspian show up to demonstrate our dependence on grace and God’s sovereignty, and “When We Were Young”, the best song on the album (and one of the best of the year), is an ecstatic ode to the glories of being young, something Lewis would have appreciated.  Put Fable on when the news in the world is getting you down, and you’ll be instantly reminded why you were originally captivated by God’s grace.

theolivetree8. The Olive Tree, Our Desert Ways: It’s no secret I’m a fan of folk music, but Our Desert Ways is really the only folk album on this list (with the possible exception of Andrew Peterson, sure, maybe, whatever), and it’s about as simple as folk music comes.  It’s basically two brothers, their acoustic guitars, and the occasional percussion.  And that’s all you need for great music when you’re a great songwriter; Our Desert Ways makes the case that The Olive Tree has two great songwriters on their hands.  My wife compared them to Caedmon’s Call, which she meant in a derogatory manner (she hates Caedmon’s Call, for some demonic reason…), though I’ll emphatically steal her comparison and use it for good.  Caedmon’s Call has always had folk leanings, but their consistent quality is Gospel-centered lyrics buoyed by stable melodies, the perfect description for The Olive Tree as well.  This can give CC and The Olive Tree a hokey feel sometimes, but Our Desert Ways’s commitment to storytelling and the Gospel have made this into a record that will endure.

fionaapple7. Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do: I can’t stand the stylings of metal or hardcore, and noise-rock tends to make me shudder, but I can’t get enough of the dissonance and strange chord changes of Fiona Apple.  Even the most listenable songs on The Idler Wheel… (“Every Single Night”, “Anything We Want”) are minor in key and unapologetically complicated in their construction.  They match their maker without a doubt; the most memorable lyric on the album, “nothin’ wrong when a song ends in the minor key” applies to both Apple’s music and, ostensibly, her life’s situations.  She never sounds comfortable, but if she’s comfortable with anything, it’s the fact that she’s a screwed-up person and her life is equally as screwed up.  On “Jonathan”, she begs to be kissed while her mind is racing.  On “Left Alone”, she talks about her tears calcifying in her stomach, so that she can’t cry when she’s sad.  And on the standout “Werewolf”, she claims complicity in the dissolution of a relationship, comparing her significant other to a shark and her faults to “waving around a bleeding open wound”.  I hope this album provided her some catharsis, because the songs portray a person with complex issues that needed to be dealt with- in other words, a human being.

brucespringsteen6. Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball: I wonder if Bruce Springsteen is the kind of artist I’m supposed to grow out of: earnest dad rock made by a man whose biggest hits were before I was born.  There’s no nostalgia holding me to Bruce, since I didn’t listen to him until college, and he’s hardly a defining artist of my generation.  Regardless, I can’t let go; he keeps putting out albums, and I keep loving them.  Wrecking Ball continues his trend of politically leaning albums mixing rock with folk begun in the 2000s with The Rising and continued with Magic and Working on a Dream.  We all know where Springsteen falls on the political spectrum (if you don’t, search Google for “Bruce Springsteen” and “campaign song”), but what often gets lost is the universality of Bruce’s lyrics and music.  If you remove Bruce the person from the songs, it’s hard to argue with words like “Let a man work, is that so wrong?” or “The road of good intentions has gone as dry as a bone”.  On an album where Bruce Springsteen swerves into hip-hop for the first time, I resist the idea that I could ever grow out of Bruce Springteen.  Instead, I’m seeing more and more than he’s one of the best artists of any time.

davidcrowderband5. David Crowder*Band, Give Us Rest; or, A Requiem Mass in C (The Happiest of All Keys): You know, David Crowder*Band had nothing left to prove.  They had already made at least three great records without releasing a bad one, on top of putting together a rollicking live show that mixed their standards with others’ worship songs and bluegrass hymns.  When they announced they’d be releasing their last album and embarking on their final tour, their legacy was intact.  They were the premier Christian pioneers of creative music-making, bringing innovation and excitement to a genre that was (and is) severely lacking in both.  Give Us Rest didn’t have to be their best album ever, and on its release, a lot of critics dismissed it as too long, too indulgent, too boring.  And they’re entitled to their opinions; they’re just wrong.  Give Us Rest is a joyous eruption of desperate praise.  It’s 100 minutes long, which is daunting at first, but there’s not a down spot on the album; even the instrumentals glow with vitality.  I’m not sure that, if I step back and think on it, I would say Give Us Rest is David Crowder*Band’s best album.  But while I listen to it, I certainly feel like it is.

japandroids4. Japandroids, Celebration Rock: There was a time in the distant, shrouded past when rock and roll was pure and unadulterated, forged in the fires of youthful passion and glorious naïveté, free from corporate greed and machinated studio contracts.  And even though none of that is true, Japandroids will make you believe it is.  Celebration Rock is exactly that: a celebration of the excesses of the music that is rock.  The titles of the songs (“Fire’s Highway”, “Adrenaline Nightshift”, “Continuous Thunder”) gesture toward the great expectations Japandroids has for their music’s effectiveness.  Japandroids is just two people, but they play with more force than most groups of any number, to the point where they’re in your heart before you even realize that everyone likes them so you’re not supposed to.

frankocean3. Frank Ocean, channel ORANGE: One of my friends has called Frank Ocean the “black Bon Iver”, which he meant as an insult, but it’s actually a pretty apt comparison.  Both artists make supremely melancholy music that transcends whatever genre they get pigeonholed in; both artists have seen success in the mainstream but truly belong somewhere outside of the radio box;  and both have unlikely partnerships with Kanye West that helped stretch his music beyond his soul-sampling comfort zone.  But with all due respect to Bon Iver, Frank Ocean is the reigning king of disillusionment.  The characters in his songs either live on the fringes of the world or they live the high life; there’s not really a middle ground for him (unless you count the average Joe in “Forrest Gump”, but he’s obsessed with the titular athlete, so he’ll end up on the fringes somehow, some way).  But all the perspectives he adopts share a sense of melancholy that can’t be duplicated.  The result is a boom in alt-R&B acts that are striving (some more successfully than others) to do just that; but channel ORANGE is that rare album that stands and will stand as a marker of its time, the first of its kind.

lecrae2. Lecrae, Gravity: A couple weeks ago, the rapper Evangel released a track online called “Hey Mr. Gravity” directed at Lecrae and the new direction he’s gone with his music.  Evangel took it down soon after, acknowledging that releasing a song that came off as a diss track probably wasn’t the best way to call out a brother.  It’s a shame, because Evangel’s song provided the perfect sounding board with which to test Lecrae’s methodology, so that we don’t just take Gravity  at face value.  I understand where Evangel was coming from- Lecrae is walking a fine line as he tries to rap from the perspective of those without Jesus, occasionally veering towards vilifying the church, God’s bride, and excusing sin.  But it’s a line on which Lecrae ultimately comes down on the right side, pointing to Jesus’s power and not man’s as the solution to our ills.  In fact, the more I listen to Gravity, the more I think Evangel must have forgotten to listen to it himself.  This is Lecrae’s best record yet, and his first to sound like he doesn’t care if it has a hit or not.  He moves away from the club-banger style that dominated Rehab and Overdose and branches out, embracing trap (“Lord Have Mercy”), Drake-style rap&B (“Confe$$ions”), and Afro-rap (“Violence”).  But the majority of the disc features the southern rap style that is dominating Reach Records’ recent releases, and you hear it here at its rollicking best.  Lecrae receives plenty of help from Trip Lee, Sho Baraka, Tedashii, Andy Mineo, and the rest of the usuals (along with a surprise appearance from Big K.R.I.T. on standout “Mayday”), but by the end of the record it’s clear that none of them are the star.  Finishing the album with “Tell the World” and “Lucky Ones”, songs that drive home our need to tell others the Gospel, Lecrae places Gravity firmly in Christ’s hands where it belongs.

andrewpeterson1. Andrew Peterson, Light for the Lost Boy: My wonderful wife bought us tickets to Andrew Peterson’s show in Linden, TX this weekend for my birthday.  When I tell people this, it’s with a certain amount of childish excitement that must come across on my face or in my voice or something, because they ask in a frightened way, “Who is he?”  I tell them he’s a Christian folk artist, and we all go on our merry way, but I fear I’m underselling him.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with Christian folk, and it’s a designation that certainly would have been true for his first seven or eight albums (give or take his classic Christmas album); but frankly, Light for the Lost Boy fails to qualify as folk.  From his last album (the excellent Counting Stars) to Light, Andrew Peterson significantly expanded his palette.  Much like 2011’s best album, Gungor’s Ghosts upon the Earth, Light for the Lost Boys doesn’t abandon what made its predecessor great; after all, there are still Americana stylings hanging around.  But there’s so much more to enjoy, from the almost grunge guitars mixing with U2 reverb on “The Cornerstone” to the indie-pop of “The Voice of Jesus” and “Shine Your Light on Me” and on to the swirling, 10-minute epic “Don’t You Want to Think Someone”.  Peterson’s sound is fuller on this album, more ambitious and more realized at the same time.  This jump in musicality befits a similar jump in themes.  Counting Stars was simpler, focused on family and devoted love.  Light for the Lost Boy focuses on those as well, but adds the passage of time, purpose, the grandeur of God in nature, and theological quandaries to the mix.  It’s both the biggest album on this list and the smallest, and it’s time you listened to it.

Fifteen More (in alphabetic order)
Alabama Shakes: Boys & Girls
Amadou & Mariam: Folila
Anaïs Mitchell: Young Man in America
Beautiful Eulogy: Satellite Kite
Carolina Chocolate Drops: Leaving Eden
Christopher Paul Stelling: Songs of Praise and Scorn
Flatfoot 56: Toil
Grizzly Bear: Shields
Jack White: Blunderbuss
John Fullbright: From the Ground Up
Matt Mays: Coyote
Passion Pit: Gossamer
Propaganda: Excellent
Trip Lee: The Good Life
The Vespers: The Fourth Wall

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

Jason Isbell, Southeastern: Probably my favorite album of the year (so far).  Isbell has released other good records since leaving Drive-By Truckers, but Southeastern is by far his most personal and forceful as he chronicles his recovery from alcoholism.

Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience: Corporate it may be, but there’s no denying that JT has once again made an album of songs that change our ideas of what pop should sound like today.  This time he does so using funk and R&B sounds of the past.

KaiL Baxley, HeatStroke / The Wind and the War: This is the record that never fell on your radar this year.  And if it weren’t for me, this diverse collection of funk and folk would have stayed off your grid.  You’re welcome.

Laura Marling, Once I Was an Eagle: I’ve heard a lot of comparisons to past artists for Laura Marling (much like Jake Bugg), but they’re useless.  Marling is a singular voice in a conformist world.  Her spare arrangements and vocals beg for creative descriptions and not lazy comparisons.

Patty Griffin, American Kid: Time after time, Patty Griffin turns out great alternative country albums.  Her newest is a tribute to her late father, and the intimacy is apparent in both the personal lyrics and the immediate music.

Most Anticipated Albums of 2013 (The Rest of the Year, in alphabetic order)

Drake, Nothing Was the Same: There aren’t many artists for whom I would willingly dive into depression and self-degradingly hedonistic behavior in order to hopefully better myself, but Drizzy is one of them.

Gungor, I Am Mountain: The title could either be awesome or laughable, I haven’t decided yet.  But I know on which side of that line the actual music will fall.  Their last album, Ghosts upon the Earth was my favorite album of 2011.  Some dropoff would be expected, but Gungor has always been a unique and surprising band, so all bets are off.

Janelle Monáe, The Electric Lady: Her The ArchAndroid was one of the best albums of 2010, though it failed to catch on with the mainstream.  I’m a little disconcerted that she’s trying to appeal more to that demographic with this album, but early singles “Dance Apocalyptic” and “Q.U.E.E.N.” don’t sound like anything on the radio, so good riddance to that idea!

Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience Part 2: It’s hard to imagine this living up to the success of Part 1, and “Take Back the Night” isn’t necessarily a smash, but at this point, I’m not betting against JT.

M.I.A., Matangi: “Bad Girls” and “Come Walk with Me” are superb.  Here’s to hoping for a massive improvement on her terrible 2010 LP /\/\ /\ Y /\.

Previous Top Albums

2011

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

2010

Titus Andronicus: The Monitor
Andrew Peterson: Counting Stars
Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Gungor: Beautiful Things
Arcade Fire: The Suburbs
Surfer Blood: Astro Coast
The Tallest Man on Earth: The Wild Hunt
Jars of Clay: The Shelter
Ben Rector: Into the Morning
Local Natives: Gorilla Manor

Music Bummys 2013: Best Songs of 2012

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

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

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

Top Songs of 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music Bummys 2012: Best Albums of 2011

[So now that we’re 9 months into the year 2012, now is a good time to look back at the best of 2011.  Why look back at 2011 when there’s only 3 months left in 2012, you ask?  Well, let me tell you, faithful reader (of which I’m positive there is only one- maybe two).  For one, we’re far enough removed from 2011 to get past all the hype over everything that came out last year; we can look back with clear eyes.  Also, we’re coming up on awards season for movies and music, so it’ll be nice to get this out of the way before all that nonsense begins.  And, most importantly, I’m not a paid critic, so there were gobs and gobs of movies and music I hadn’t consumed when Grammy and Oscar time came around at the beginning of 2012- at that point, I didn’t think I could give a qualified answer for what the best movies and music were last year.

But now I’ve listened to the majority of the albums (both big and small) that got notice last year and I’ve seen the majority of the notable movies (both indie and mainstream) from 2011, and I can now (somewhat) conclusively say that I’ve got a good handle on what I consider the best of both music and movies from last year.

The real question is, why am I going to all this trouble?  Any post on this blog I consider practice for when I truly write creatively, such as when I begin to write short stories or a book at some point in the future (a pipe dream, sure, but the blog does get my creative juices flowing, so it may be more realistic than you might think).  And, perhaps more importantly, I love movies and music, so I consider them worth writing about.  I believe one way God wants us to reflect His image in this world is to create, and I believe God uses movies and music to teach us and to stir our spirits and, yes, to entertain us.  Writing helps me process that better.]*

A week ago I listed out the best acting performances of 2011, then two days later I gave you the top songs of 2011.  This week I’ll give you the top albums and the top movies.

I made an egregious error last week: I left “1+1” by Beyoncé off my best songs list, or at least on my 2nd 10.  My bad, Bey.

Top Albums of 2011

10. Matt Papa, This Changes Everything: Matt Papa doesn’t rely on anything flashy to make his songs work.  All he offers is strong songwriting and unparalleled passion.  Thankfully he also brings courage to the table, elevating simple songs like “This Changes Everything” and “Stay Away from Jesus” into emotional declarations of faith.  The album is essentially a worship album that’s tired of all the other worship albums phoning it in.  Papa writes inspired arrangements that proclaim doctrine and exclaim God’s attributes, most notably in the “The Lord Is a Warrior (feat. Shai Linne)” and “The Glory of God”, which features a sample of a John Piper sermon.

9. Beyoncé, 4: I’ve listened to Beyoncé’s other albums, I’m not ashamed to admit, and they were fine, I guess, but they were really a smattering of great singles with mostly filler.  4 is her first album that is fully great, and it’s no coincidence that it’s her most creative.  It seems as if Mrs. Shawn Carter made the songs she wanted on this album and not the songs she thought her fans wanted.  Her big voice is still intact on this album, but it takes more risks, from the frenetic “Countdown” to the funky yet power-ballad “1+1”.  Her themes are more assured here, too- it’s refreshing to hear these songs and think that Jay-Z and Beyoncé are as in love as we ourselves want to be someday, if we aren’t already.  The love she declares in these songs comes off as truly classic, and while her husband released a fine duo record with Kanye in Watch the Throne, in 2011, Beyoncé came out (love) on top.

8. Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin’: Raphael Saadiq is a faster-paced, male Adele, bringing a classic soul/Motown sound to today’s audiences.  Unfortunately, Saadiq didn’t get the publicity that Adele did, though that admittedly makes me love him more.  Stone Rollin’ starts off strong with the great, rocking “Heart Attack”, with its timeless chorus and “Satisfaction”-recalling verses.  The album never looks back after that as Saadiq storms through songs with subject matter running the gamut from rising above sin (“Go to Hell”) to succumbing to it (the bluesy title song).  Saadiq ends with “The Answer”, a song with a social conscience Marvin Gaye would have been proud of, calling on the older generation to give their wisdom to the young ‘uns.  The young ‘uns would do well to look to Saadiq for how to rock- we could use some more musicians with his ability to bring the past into modern times.

7. Drake, Take Care: Some of my favorite albums are works that show the depths of their authors’ sin- not because I’m secretly pointing and laughing, or seeing myself as superior, but because I see myself in there somewhere, and I’m reminded of the depths I could sink to without grace.  Take Care is such an album.  The way Drake writes his songs, it seems as if he’s stuck in a pattern of behavior that he both detests and can’t live without.  “Marvin’s Room” is about his drunk dial of an old girlfriend, and the things he says to her are angry and heartbreaking.  “Headlines” has the title of a song about Drake’s fame, but it’s really about how he can’t even talk himself up anymore- he no longer believes his own hype.  In a lot of Drake’s songs, the real message is in the atmosphere; “Headlines” has such a sad-sounding chorus that you know he doesn’t believe what he’s saying.  The throughline of the album is that sadness, coming to a climax on “Take Care”, a duet with Rihanna about two depressed people who can’t let go of each other.  If I’ve made this sound terribly depressing, that’s because it is- but that doesn’t stop Drake from making it gorgeous.

6. Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues: There are breakup albums, and then there are albums that happen to be made in the middle of a breakup.  Helplessness Blues is the latter, and the circumstances allowed Foxes’ frontman Robin Pecknold to write his most personal songs yet.  Fleet Foxes’ self-titled debut was gorgeous and stately folk music with lyrics about wolves and cornucopias and strawberries in snow- so it wasn’t the most literal of albums.  Pecknold hasn’t totally left the abstract behind, but he gives us some real insight into himself on Helplessness.  In “Sim Sala Bim” he sings of the Earth shaking and breaking dreams, but he also asks “What makes you love me despite the reservations?”.  And on the title track, Pecknold expresses frustration with the idea that we’re all supposedly unique and that our futures are determined by the establishment.  All this personal stuff is framed by beautiful melodies and harmonies, culminating in the fantastic “Grown Ocean”, which rises in driving guitar and drums to hope for future fulfillment.  Maybe I’m just drawn to this album because it’s tailor-made for the scared but hopeful young adult about to face the world.  Or maybe Pecknold and Co. have tapped into fears and hopes that are more universal.

5. The War on Drugs, Slave Ambient: I’m a huge fan of folk and folk rock; I like a little twang in my singers’ voices, a little finger-pickin’ in the guitars.  There’s not too much variation there though, so when I came across The War on Drugs, they immediately stood out to me as a band pushing the limits of their genre.  Combining shoegaze, psychedelia, and Tom-Petty-folk rock, Slave Ambient (which, come to think of it, would have been the perfect name for the Drake album on this list too) jangles its way into a distinct sound.  The sound itself carries the feel of yearning mixed with disappointment, and indeed, many of their songs cover that ground.  But the rebel-yell “ooh-ooh” on “Come to the City” and the chugging guitar on “Black Water Falls” suggest hope, and it’s this mix of real feelings that raises The War on Drugs above novelty and into indie-folk greatness.

4. Bon Iver, Bon Iver: Justin Vernon may be kind of a jerk, but he’s made soft rock cool again, so he’s obviously a genius.  For Emma, Forever Ago in 2008 was basically a folk album; with their self-titled followup, Bon Iver got about as far away from folk as they could without settling into a distinct genre.  Like The War on Drugs, Justin Vernon played with what music allowed him to do, and he won.  From “Perth”’s opening snare drums to “Beth/Rest”’s sax solo, Bon Iver bends the music to their will, fashioning gorgeous melodies out of nowhere.  Indeed, there’s not much of a structure to their songs, but that means the more you come back to it, the more hooks you’re going to find.  If you pick just one song (I suggest “Holocene” or “Beth/Rest”) to listen to, you’ll find a million things to love, a million different ways Bon Iver got creative without straying from the theme of the song.  Some have called them boring, but that’s because they’re not really listening.

3. Over the Rhine, The Long Surrender: When you think of jazz singers, chances are you hear in your mind someone who sounds a lot like Over the Rhine’s Karin Bergquist: a little smoky, slightly seductive.  You’ve never heard a voice like hers set to songs like these though.  In a band with her longtime husband Linford Detweiler, Karin sings songs that are alternately jazz-tinged and folksy while he accompanies her on a piano that sounds vaguely like a carnival at times.  Some of their songs are about themselves and their stormy relationship, like “Infamous Love Song” and you get the feeling she’s including the two of them in “Only God Can Save Us Now”, but most of the album is about everyday people.  The album’s message is best summed up in “All My Favorite People”- “all my favorite people are broken / Believe me, my heart should know.”  Over the Rhine is a representative of the people, shining light on their foibles as well as their beauty.

2. Adele, 21: I tend to want to backlash against what everyone else likes, at least when it comes to music.  And I can’t pretend to be a hipster about this and claim to have liked Adele before everyone else did.  The only reason I listened to her was because I was reading so much hype about her.  But Adele managed to do what no one else nowadays can do: she dominated music for over an entire year.  21 outsold EVERYONE last year.  It has sold 23 million albums as of September.  That’s insane.  Obviously, that has nothing to do with album quality and everything to do with zeitgeist.  But it got my attention, and ever since listening to it early last year.  I’m convinced that 21 will be remembered not only as a classic, but as a supremely enjoyable and moving album.  There are plenty of hit albums that don’t register on an emotional level, but Adele’s voice is soulful and true, and every song connects.  21 is strong from front to back, it was the year’s biggest and (nearly) its best album, and you know what?  She was only 21 when she recorded it.  I have got to get started on that novel.

1. Gungor, Ghosts upon the Earth: Christian music is notorious for not putting out notably creative music.  That being said, I’d argue that Christian pop/rock music is at an all-time high and only getting better.  This isn’t to discredit the great Christian music that came out in the ‘90s, but there just wasn’t very much of it.  The artists are beginning to see the eternal value in creating, one crucial way that God intends for us to bear His image.  Gungor has taken this literally; they’ve created a work of art about our creation.  Ghosts upon the Earth begins at the beginning, singer Lisa Gungor crying, “Let there be light” in a beautiful crescendo.  The album flows from creation to “The Fall” of man through man’s rejection of God after God’s covenant (the emotional “Ezekiel”) to the resurrection (the jubilant “This Is Not the End”) and finally the day when we all praise God’s name in His perfect will (“You Are the Beauty” and “Every Breath”).  I don’t know if Ghosts was meant to be a concept album, but if there’s ever been an album that adequately expresses the mystery and joy of the Gospel (and “adequately” is all any human could ever do), Ghosts upon the Earth is it.

Another Ten (in alphabetic order)
Burlap to Cashmere: Burlap to Cashmere
Gary Clark Jr.: The Bright Lights EP
Jay-Z & Kanye West: Watch the Throne
Josh Garrels: Love & War & the Sea in Between
M83: Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
Miranda Lambert: Four the Record
Needtobreathe: The Reckoning
Switchfoot: Vice Verses
Tedashii: Blacklight
tUnE-yArDs: w h o k i l l

Top Albums of 2012 (So Far, and in alphabetic order)

Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball: A timely, rousing album that dominates the line between staying true to the Boss’s style and experimenting with other genres.  This is an album that feels born in the USA of today.

David Crowder Band, Give Us Rest or (A Requiem Mass in C [The Happiest of All Keys]): I don’t know that I’ll ever get tired of exploring this album.  Extraordinarily dense and long, but moving and exciting from end to end.  Crowder and Co. crafted a fitting end to their production career.

Japandroids, Celebration Rock: The title says it all.  There aren’t enough bands who make this kind of heart-on-sleeve music that don’t sound like some version of Creed.  Japandroids have restored my faith in rock music.

Trip Lee, The Good Life: Maybe the most triumphant album of the year so far.  No other Christian rap album has sounded this unique and classic at the same time.  I love the direction the 116 Clique is going, but so far, Lee has set himself apart from this rap pack.

The Vespers, The Fourth Wall: It’s a mystery to me why my ear has latched onto this album.  It’s a folk album, and it’s got the banjo, and it’s go the harmonies, so nothing new right?  But the girls’ voices are uncommonly beautiful, and it seems to me that with each song they go out of their way not to conform to the folk norm without getting too out there.  They’re doing their thing, and I love it.

Most Anticipated Albums of 2012 (The Rest of the Year, in alphabetic order)

Bat for Lashes, A Haunted Man: The last Bat for Lashes album was a gothic fantasy that quietly stole my heart.  I mean, she wrote a song about the Karate Kid, and it’s actually beautiful- that’s incredible.  I’m excited to see if Natasha Khan can bewitch me again this year.

Green Day, Uno!, Dos!: I feel like I’m in the minority among my friends when it comes to Green Day, but I love them.  I think American Idiot is an amazing album, and I’ll fight you if you tell me I’m wrong.  That said, I’m looking forward to hearing Green Day get back to their roots and not try to chase some concept down a rabbit hole (see: 21st Century Breakdown).

Gungor, A Creation Liturgy: Obviously I love Gungor’s music (see above), but this isn’t a new album; instead, it’s a live album recorded during their Ghosts upon the Earth Tour from this past spring.  I had the pleasure of seeing them live at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa twice in the past year.  They’re such a talented group, seeing them live isn’t at all like hearing their record.  Hopefully, this live recording will provide a different facet of their already-great songs.

Lupe Fiasco, Food & Liquor 2: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1: The Cool left me cold and I absolutely hated Lasers, but Food & Liquor is one of my favorite rap albums ever.  I’m really banking on the fact that F&L is back in the title- maybe that means Lupe’s back to his old ways, and if that’s the case, Food & Liquor 2 should be an insightful, empathetic look at real people and their problems, and not an overblown, overproduced diatribe.

Titus Andronicus, Local Business: Titus Andronicus isn’t necessarily easy to like, but their last album, The Monitor, was my favorite album of 2010.  They had a knack for expressing real emotion through big metaphors, kind of like Green Day, back in the day, come to think of it, though The Monitor was never as heavy-handed as even the best of Green Day’s songs.  My hope is that Local Business can convey as much pathos as The Monitor, but I’ll settle for half; that will still make it one of the best albums of the year.

*Reprinted from last Monday’s post.

Music Bummys 2012: Best Songs of 2011

[So now that we’re 9 months into the year 2012, now is a good time to look back at the best of 2011.  Why look back at 2011 when there’s only 3 months left in 2012, you ask?  Well, let me tell you, faithful reader (of which I’m positive there is only one- maybe two).  For one, we’re far enough removed from 2011 to get past all the hype over everything that came out last year; we can look back with clear eyes.  Also, we’re coming up on awards season for movies and music, so it’ll be nice to get this out of the way before all that nonsense begins.  And, most importantly, I’m not a paid critic, so there were gobs and gobs of movies and music I hadn’t consumed when Grammy and Oscar time came around at the beginning of 2012- at that point, I didn’t think I could give a qualified answer for what the best movies and music were last year.

But now I’ve listened to the majority of the albums (both big and small) that got notice last year and I’ve seen the majority of the notable movies (both indie and mainstream) from 2011, and I can now (somewhat) conclusively say that I’ve got a good handle on what I consider the best of both music and movies from last year.

The real question is, why am I going to all this trouble?  Any post on this blog I consider practice for when I truly write creatively, such as when I begin to write short stories or a book at some point in the future (a pipe dream, sure, but the blog does get my creative juices flowing, so it may be more realistic than you might think).  And, perhaps more importantly, I love movies and music, so I consider them worth writing about.  I believe one way God wants us to reflect His image in this world is to create, and I believe God uses movies and music to teach us and to stir our spirits and, yes, to entertain us.  Writing helps me process that better.]*

Two days ago I listed out the best acting performances of 2011.  Today I’ll give you the top songs of 2011, along with my favorite songs so far from 2012.  The next few days will see the top albums and top movies of 2011.

My list of the best songs of 2011 is dominated by folk-tinged songs.  Sorry if you don’t like folk, but I chose the records that meant the most to me last year, and a lot of them happened to be folk.  But there’s a rap song on there, a country song, a Bon Iver song, and an electronic song, which nearly took my top spot.  But ultimately, 2011 belonged to Adele.

I realize that people don’t even have time to listen to every song on this list.  Choose three and try to listen to them right now- I’ve made it easy for you by linking to a place where they’re streaming.

I’m not really a music critic, so I don’t have much else to say.  Don’t expect me to be this concise when I give my list of movies a few days from now.

Here we go:

Top Songs of 2011

10. “Beth/Rest” by Bon Iver:  I don’t blame you if you find this song cheesy.  It sounds like the kind of song you’d find on an AM radio station, or maybe on a station hosted by the ubiquitous Delilah.  But to me, “Beth/Rest” is soothing and almost euphoric.  The whole time I listen to it, I’m constantly amazed by how Justin Vernon uses electric guitar and saxophone and steel guitar all to great effect, and all in the same song.  Falling at the end of Bon Iver’s great self-titled record, it’s the culmination of the creativity and resourcefulness that Bon Iver embodies.  And, sadly, we may not experience that creativity and resourcefulness for some time.

9. “Bright Lights” by Gary Clark Jr.:  The Black Keys are sitting on the bluesy rock throne right now after Jack White relinquished it, but Gary Clark Jr. threatened to depose the Keys with last year’s Bright Lights EP.  He’s drawn comparisons to Jimi Hendrix, but that’s unfair; no one should live with that burden.  Instead, just appreciate how fully Clark Jr. transposes the blues into our modern age.  The song sounds classic, but the crunch of that guitar is pure modern times.

8. “Days Like This” by Over the Rhine:  How can such a quiet song say so much?  The music is a harmless folk gem, but the melancholy is pervasive.  When Karin Bergquist sings about letting her regrets go, you feel those regrets, you feel her desperate hope that she’ll finally be happy.  And yet other lines are totally happy, such as when she talks about the sky being a clear blue or thinking about the people who love her.  This is a song that considers the full opportunity and scope of one life, and it’s hidden inside a simple folk song.

7. “This Changes Everything” by Matt Papa:  The song starts as a story, then becomes a rebuke.  The story is of Matt Papa taking communion as a child and crying, then looking around and seeing that no one else is.  He asks, isn’t this supposed to change everything?  (“This” refers to the fact that Jesus died but is now alive.)  When I first heard this song, I was wrecked; my life should look so different than others’.  If God came to Earth as a man, died for my sins, then beat death and rose again, then nothing is the same.  Matt Papa sings this with passion, desperate to call our attention to the urgency of this good, good news.

6. “Otis” by Jay-Z & Kanye West:  Yes, “Ni—as in Paris” was EVERYWHERE last year, but “Otis” was the better song.  They took a song that was already pure gold (Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness”) and turned it into…more pure gold, a rap classic that finds Ye and Hov spitting about their riches and their swagger.  If you’re tired of rappers rapping about how awesome they are, well, then, this probably isn’t the song for you.  If you’ve been tired of Jay-Z phoning it in and Kanye rapping about his feelings, then this IS the song for you- Jay finally sounds like he likes rapping again, and Kanye is having the most fun he’s had since “Gone”.

5. “Oklahoma Sky” by Miranda Lambert:  So I live in Oklahoma and this song is about Oklahoma- so what?  I’m self-aware.  I know I’m biased.  I don’t care.  This is a gorgeous song, no matter where you live.  Sometimes love feels like lightning in a bottle; you couldn’t have planned it, you can’t control it.  And feelings like that are perfectly matched with something as naturally beautiful and uncontrollable as the Oklahoma sky.  Stop me before I get too sentimental on you.  Just listen to the song.  You’ll be waxing poetic too.

4. “Helplessness Blues” by Fleet Foxes:  So many songs are about love, it’s rare to find one that so eloquently captures the feel of anything else.  But frontman Robin Pecknold does just that in “Helplessness Blues”.  He sings of the universal struggle to find one’s purpose, with little help from previous generations, who offer platitudes and advice that amounts to little if the person on the receiving end has no experience.  Pecknold wrote Fleet Foxes’ second album while in the midst of a breakup; when his ex heard the album, she called him immediately and told him that if all the troubles they had were because of that album, it was worth it.  They’re now back together.  I’ve never tried to create something, but I imagine that, if Pecknold put as much of himself into this song as it sounds, it was a long, arduous process.  And if this is what comes of that, it would be totally worth it.

3. “You Are the Beauty” by Gungor:  No Gungor song illustrates the fact that they are a music “collective” better than this one.  There are so many different instruments filling your ears on this song- it’s a testament to the creative spirit that God planted in all of us.  This song essentially begins as a folk song, then morphs into a proggy guitar-cello-violin trio.  As a whole, it seems to reflect the many different facets of what God’s beauty looks like to Gungor.  I find something new in “You Are the Beauty” every time, and seeing them live only reinforces how malleable of a product they’ve created.  This song is a beautiful example of worshiping the Lord through creativity.  More worship artists should look to this song as the template for how to expand worship music beyond verse-chorus-verse into something truly creation-based.  There are few songs that point me to Christ both in their lyrics and the sheer depth of the music itself; this is one of them.

2. “Need You Now” by Cut CopyThe ‘80s have made a comeback, which may strike fear in some people’s hearts, but I’m happy as long as songs like this come out of it.  “Need You Now” (not the incessant but pleasant Lady Antebellum song) is a plea for attention that begs to be heard.  Lead vocalist Dan Whitford is no stranger to big melodies, but “Need You Now” crushes his other songs.  His voice starts low, at merely a disinterested attempt to comfort the girl he loves.  But as the synths expand and grow, his voice reaches a fever pitch, sure to pierce the heart of all the girls, not just his.  Seriously, how many Sixteen Candles- and Pretty in Pink-obsessed girls did Whitford seduce with this song?  But really, for a generation that has been seemingly unable to quit looking back at the ‘80s, we seem to have ignored the retro explosion’s best song.  You won’t believe me until about the 2:38 mark in the clip above, when his voice climbs above everything in the entire world and shouts out for love.  You’ll be a believer too.  My heart skips a beat every time.

1. “Someone Like You” by Adele: The rest of the album is sublime, yes.  But the rest of 21 is Adele fighting with herself to come to terms with her breakup.  On “Someone Like You”, she does it.  She finds freedom, somewhere in the middle of this ballad.  That’s what we yearn for when we have to wade through the mess after a breakup, and it’s truly hard to find sometimes.  But Adele does it.  Kelly Clarkson tried to achieve something like this on “Because of You”, but Adele’s catharsis in this song hasn’t been matched.  We’ve spent all of 21 singing with her, pumping our fist in agreement as she tells off her ex.  But when we arrive at “Someone Like You”, we stop, and we smile, because it’s going to be okay. And that is truly freeing.

Ten More Songs (in alphabetic order)
Adele: “Rolling in the Deep”
The Black Keys: “Lonely Boy”
Blitzen Trapper: “Love the Way You Walk Away”
Burlap to Cashmere: “Orchestrated Love Song”
Drake: “Take Care (feat. Rihanna)”
Fleet Foxes: “Grown Ocean”
Jay-Z & Kanye West: “Ni–as in Paris”
Needtobreathe: “Slumber”
Raphael Saadiq: “Go to Hell”
The War on Drugs: “Come to the City”

Top Songs of 2012 (So Far, in alphabetic order)

Bruce Springsteen: “Land of Hope and Dreams”: The Boss has been performing this song live for years now, but the version he released this year on Wrecking Ball is heavenly.  He’s always full of mercy for sinners, but I’ve never heard Springsteen sound so hopeful and full of faith; this is how I want to be every day.

Carly Rae Jepsen: “Call Me Maybe”: I know what you’re thinking- what happened to Bum’s hipster cred?  First of all, I’m not a hipster, nor do I care about this “hipster cred” you speak of.  Second of all, this song is AWESOME.

Jimmy Needham: “Clear the Stage”: Jimmy Needham may have never written a better song than this honest, inward-looking cry for a revolution of the soul.

Trip Lee: “One Sixteen”: This is one posse track that doesn’t make a big deal about its posse; everyone on this song is here to point to the greatness of God, and conversely they’ve made the best rap song of the year yet.  All three rappers are at their best, but check out Andy Mineo’s verse; it’s a doozy.

Usher: “Climax”: This isn’t the Usher you think you know.  I know what this song is really about, but I prefer to imagine Usher standing in front of a burning-down club, belting out in falsetto while he looks for his love in the flames.  That’s how epic this track is.

*Reprinted from the first Bummys post this week.

The Good Life by Trip Lee

I used to balk at the idea at Christian rap, but now I love it.  I have respect for what these guys are trying to do, and they are genuinely good musicians with a good ear for great music.  The 116 Clique (a group of Christian rappers from Dallas signed to Reach Records) in particular has reached a broad audience, using rap as a medium for real talk about Scripture and how it guides us through the realities of life, with Christ as the center of each song.

I had never listened to Trip Lee before this album.  My only other experiences with Christian rap were Lecrae and Tedashii, so Lee had a lot to live up to.  The Good Life is the most creative I’ve heard yet.  Lecrae’s Rehab was more poppy with a lot of synths and catchy hooks.  As a result, he made music that was accessible to and beloved by a wide variety of people.  Tedashii’s Blacklight was more akin to traditional hip-hop and rap, barreling along with more strength and gusto than Rehab.  The Good Life uses stranger samples and production, and it’s a more chill album than the other two.  All in all, it’s my favorite Christian rap album so far.  All three have insightful lyrics and great beats, but Trip Lee has made a unique and strong album across the board.

It seems silly to write about an album like The Good Life, which deals with a lot of hard subjects, like abortion and poverty.  What do I know of any of this?  My life has been so easy.  I don’t think I’m the target audience of this album.  But that doesn’t mean these songs don’t reach me where I live too.  The point is that a good life isn’t necessarily the easy one, but a life lived under the grace of Christ.  Lee’s sincerity is obvious, but it’s his deep levels of creativity that have allowed him to share that sincerity with us in the form of great music.

Favorite songs: “One Sixteen” “Take Me There” “Good Thing”