Wednesday, June 28, 2017

My Favorite Albums of 2017 (So Far)

How are we already six months into 2017?! It feels like only yesterday that I was putting the finishing touches on my Top 40 Albums of 2016 list for Chorus.fm. Now, here we are, in the last days of June and diving back into mid-year coverage. Some publications were inexplicably ready to reflect on the year's mid-way at the end of April, but in their defense, 2017 has already been jam-packed with more than enough great albums to fill a list. My top 10 alone is already on the same level of the 10 records that topped my year-end list last year. On top of that, I couldn't help but include a few honorable mentions that I couldn't fit into my top 10not something I normally feel inclined to do at mid-year.

This process made one thing clear: after another six months of great records (there are confirmed or speculated albums on the horizon from Noah Gundersen, Will Hoge, Chris Stapleton, David Ramirez, Iron & Wine, Tyler Childers, U2, Bruce Springsteen, Kelsea Ballerini, Brian Fallon, Frank Turner, Haim, Taylor Swift, Old Dominion, and Matt Nathanson), making my end-of-the-year list for 2017 is going to be murder. It's a good problem to have.

The Top 10

 1. Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit - The Nashville Sound


Jason Isbell has a lot on his mind, and lucky for us, he's willing to let us pull up a chair. The Nashville Sound is Isbell's most personal collection yet, with its best songs built around his deep self-reflection on what it means to be a husband and a father in the current global climate. Given Isbell's status as a folk-leaning country singer, it's not surprising that he gets political here. Many of the songs were written after Trump won the election, and Isbell and his band went into the studio the week after the inauguration. But rather than let his songs get bogged down in Very Special Messages, Isbell lets his personal stories and character sketches carry his beliefs, statements, and questions for him. The result is a deep, nuanced, thought-provoking, and resilient piece of work, an album that I think I'll be mining for new details and answers for years to come. There has been no greater piece of art in 2017.

2. Steve Moakler - Steel Town


Despite the fact that it was only five songs long, Steve Moakler's self-titled 2016 EP got more play time from me last year than any record that wasn't Butch Walker's Stay Gold. The charms of that five-song setmade up of catchy, relaxed pop country jamswere perfect for windows-down summer drives and reflective summer nights alike. Steel Town takes those five songs, adds another six of the same caliber, and ends up being one of the most purely enjoyable albums I've heard in a long while. Moakler's tunes aren't overproduced or dressed to the nines in pop sheen like most of his mainstream-leaning contemporaries. Instead, they wear their sunny hooks, deft thematic songwriting, and dusty, rootsy character proudly, making for an album that splits the difference between the immediate returns of pop-country and the deeper soul of alt-country. There's a reason I haven't listened to any 2017 release more than this one.

3. Natalie Hemby - Puxico


Puxico, the debut LP from standby Music Row songwriter Natalie Hemby, sounded terrific when I first heard it in December. But this record wasn't made for winter, and it frankly sounds immaculate now that the weather has finally warmed up. On a recent evening walk around my neighborhood, I put on Puxico, and I marveled at how well the songs fit the lilting, lazy atmosphere of a muggy summer evening. A kaleidoscope of Ferris wheels, carnival lights, young love, sunsets over deserted highways, and small town grandeur, this record does world-building as well as any LP released in 2017. It's a beautiful, honest piece of workthe kind of record that becomes a sleeper classic after a year or two. Jump on the bandwagon now, before it's the "cool" thing to do.
 
4. Colter Wall - Colter Wall


At this point, it's almost a foregone conclusion that Dave Cobb will produce the breakout country songwriter record of the year. In 2013, it was Jason Isbell. In 2014, it was Sturgill Simpson. In 2015, it was Chris Stapleton. In 2016, it was Lori McKenna. And for 2017, it's Colter Wall, a 21-year-old wunderkind from Saskatchewan who sounds like he's at least two times his age. Wall's songs sound like they come from a different era, to the point where it's almost weird to hear them coming out of an electronic device. His characters are outlaws, cowboys, killers, jealous lovers, and heartbroken fools, hopping train cars, drinking too much, or sitting in their prison cells regretting past mistakes. Listening to their woes feels like being transported to the back of a smoky western saloon, where some bourbon-drunk troubadour is spilling hit guts. In a year that's brought so many demoralizing headlines already, the time-traveling escapism that Colter Wall provides is, frankly, nothing short of a godsend.

5. Chris Stapleton - From A Room: Volume 1


The sophomore slump is real in country music, largely because once labels smell a moneymaker, they micro-manage, over-produce, and second-guess until there's not much left of the authentic artist that fans fell in love with. These concerns were all very real for Chris Stapleton, who scored one of the biggest breakthroughs of the decade with his 2015 album Traveller. Traveller was unapologetic in its rejection of mainstream country radio trends, opting for a sound that blended classic country, outlaw country, soul, and Bob Seger-style rock 'n' roll. After that album won every award in the genre and went double platinum, I worried that Mercury Nashville might push Stapleton to write poppier songs or invite big name artists to guest on his record. I needn't have fretted. Stapleton's From A Room: Volume 1 is a low-key collection of soulful country songs, with masterfully concise writing, sharp melodies, and miraculous vocals. It's one of the least flashy albums ever to top the Billboard sales chartand, probably, one of the best. In all likelihood, Volume 2 will only render the accomplishment more impressive.

6. The Menzingers - After the Party


I've been saying for years that I want a band from the punk/pop-punk/emo scene to make an album with some of the scale, ambition, and character of American Idiot. Not necessarily a rock opera, but a big, grandiose, deeply felt piece about growing up and finding your place in the world. More than any record I've heard from the "scene" in years, After the Party is that album. The Menzingers have, up until now, been a band that I've always liked but never loved. After the Party changes that with 13 songs worth of loud guitars, anthemic melodies, and shout-along choruses about that moment where you realize you somehow stumbled into adult. From Born to Run to American Idiot to American Slang, rock records that make these kinds of we-ain't-that-young-anymore sentiments ring with so much truth and lived-in depth frequently end up among my favorite LPs. After the Party is no exception.

7. Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness - Zombies on Broadway


There are only a few people in the music industry right now who write pop songs with the effortless grace of Andrew McMahon. With Zombies on Broadway, McMahon makes his poppiest album yet, an album jam-packed with hooks, synth and piano lines that will adhere themselves to the side of your brain, and arrangements so glossy and maximalist that they could land at least a few of these songs in clubs. But Zombies is also heartfelt, honest, and openly autobiographical, chronicling everything from McMahon's infatuation with New York City to the ache of having to leave his family behind to go on tour. McMahon dropped Zombies in the dead of winter, but at its finest moments, the record sounds just as much like a sweltering, whirlwind summer as Everything in Transit did. In other words, this one is about to surge back into regular rotation.

8. Ryan Adams - Prisoner


Ryan Adams is in the midst of one of music's great second acts. After bursting onto the scene in the early 2000s with masterful records like Heartbreaker, Gold, and Love Is Hell, Adams struggled mightily to craft something cohesive and consistent. His albums were undone by his own inability to temper his prolific tendencies and wide-ranging musical interests into musical statements that were greater than the sum of his parts. Starting with 2011's Ashes & Fire and continuing with 2014's Ryan Adams, though, Adams has finally come into his own as an album maker, mastering the art of sonic cohesion and finally learning how to trim the fat. Prisoner isn't as strong song-for-song as Adams' self-titled record, but it might be his most forceful album-length statement yet, a cold, cutting divorce album with some of his most lonesome songs ever written. It's a Tunnel of Love for a new generation.

9. John Moreland - Big Bad Luv


John Moreland is finally getting the attention he deserves. The Oklahoma singer/songwriter was recently proclaimed as "the New Face of Folk Rock" by GQ, and that's a deserved title for someone who writes and sings with more honesty and feeling than 99.9% of artists in the music industry. Never mind that Moreland's latest album, the road-tripping, full-band-driven Big Bad Luv, is a noticeable step down from 2015's High on Tulsa Heat, one of the decade's genuine country music masterpieces. That album plumbed the depths of Moreland's own heartbreak and desolation, somehow making complete loneliness sound a little less lonely. Big Bad Luv is brighter, bolder, louder, and more optimistic, with shades of bar-band blues and E Street swagger mixed in with its introspective balladry. It's proof that Moreland has the talent to move your feet as well as your heart and soul.

10. Sam Outlaw - Tenderheart


Sam Outlaw's debut, 2015's Angeleno, was an enjoyable if old-fashioned country record, enlivened by exotic mariachi horn arrangements and flickers of pedal steel as pretty as a postcard. Tenderheart takes Outlaw's sound and realizes his potential, providing a more modern feel without losing the timeless heart of his sound. In that regard, it's similar to Dawes' Stories Don't End, another palate-expanding record from another California country-folk act that had previously been accused of being stuck in the past. Tenderheart actually kind of sounds like a Dawes record, incorporating similar Laurel Canyon folk influences for a fun, modern twist on 1970s soft rock. (Fittingly, Dawes frontman Taylor Goldsmith sits in to play guitar.) But while the music is aesthetically gorgeous enough to conjure up thoughts of Jackson Browne, Tom Petty, and James Taylor, the album ultimately transcends thanks to Outlaw's wry sense of humor and his unique outlook on well-trodden subjects like masculinity, life on the road, and the flickering brevity of human relationships.

The Honorable Mentions

Bleachers - Gone Now

A masterful, ambitious pop record that provides both undeniable singles and a cohesive start-to-finish arc. "Don't Take the Money" might just be the year's best pop song.

All Time Low - Last Young Renegade

One of the best pop-punk bands ever turns into one of the best pop bands of today with this wistful, insanely catchy summertime LP. Screw your "song of the summer 2017" debates if "Last Young Renegade" isn't in the running.

Luke Combs - This One's for You

Mainstream country with depth and feeling. Lead single "Hurricane" topped the country charts, and songs like "Memories Are Made Of" and "Don't Tempt Me" are catchy enough to follow suit, but it's ballads like "I Got Away with You" that show Combs' songwriting ability.

John Mayer - The Search for Everything

If Mayer hadn't botched the rollout for this record so badly, it might have pushed its way into my top 10. Even with a bad release strategy and some awful sequencing, though, Mayer's latest is stacked with great songs, such as "In the Blood" and "Rosie."

The Maine - Lovely Little Lonely

Over the course of six albums, The Maine have evolved from pop-punk also-rans to one of the most consistent rock bands of today. Lovely Little Lonely blends Third Eye Blind and The 1975 for an irresistible pop-rock cocktail.

The Steel Woods - Straw in the Wind

Scorching southern rock, prog metal, and down-home country all collide to form the one-of-a-kind sound of The Steel Woods. The entire record is refreshing, but the country-leaning songs stand out among some of the best of 2017especially the escapist plea of "If We Never Go."

Fleet Foxes - Crack-Up

Dense and pointedly inaccessible, the long-awaited third album from Fleet Foxes is a lot to take in. It doesn't have the immediate stand-outs of the band's first two LPs, but every time I listen, it sweeps me away. I look forward to unlocking its secrets throughout the second half of the year.

Charlie Worsham - The Beginning of Things

Charlie Worsham's first album, 2013's Rubberband, was warm, mainstream-leaning country. His second is arguably the most versatile album I've heard this year, in any genre. Funny, heartbreaking, soulful, rootsy, catchy, political, personal, loud, soft, and occasionally even punk-ish, The Beginning of Things is a true musical roller coaster ridein a good way.

Zac Brown Band - Welcome Home

After a record that incorporated elements of EDM, grunge, bossa nova, and prog rock into Zac Brown Band's country DNA, the group takes the back-to-basics approach. It's a welcome return to form, elevated by Brown's personal introspection about home and family and Dave Cobb's sparse production.

Japandroids - Near to the Wild Heart of Life

It ain't Celebration Rock, but at its best, Near to the Wild Heart of Life still beats with the double-time heartbeat of rock 'n' roll salvation. The title track is the highlight, spinning a last-night-in-town yarn for the ages.

The EPs

Nashville has developed a bad habit of forcing young female artists to wait years before releasing their debut albums. Recent Grammy Best New Artists Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini have been huge successes, but they had to prove themselves on EPs before getting a chance to release their breakthrough full-lengths. Six of the 10 EPs listed below come from young female voices who are making some of the sharpest, most infectious music in Nashville today. Any one of them could be the next breakout success story. Add in short-form projects from Isbell, Rick Brantley, Ruston Kelly, and A Thousand Horses, and 2017 is already a banner year for the EP.

Bailey Bryan - So Far
Delta Rae - A Long and Happy Life
Jo Smith - Introducing Jo Smith
Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit - Live from Welcome to 1979
Kalie Shorr - Slingshot
Lindsay Ell - Worth the Wait
Nikita Karmen - Nikita Karmen
Rick Brantley - Hi-Fi
Ruston Kelly - Halloween
A Thousand Horses - Bridges

Friday, November 18, 2016

26 Years, 27 Songs: Choosing One Defining Song for Each Year of My Life

A few months back, one of my Facebook friends marked his 40th birthday in the coolest way imaginable: he created a sprawling Spotify playlist, charting the course from 1976 to now, selecting one song per year. His playlist was at least partially aimed at discovery: which artists he could encourage people to check out by giving them one of his years. Of course, he was also picking songs that mattered to him personally, but his focus on smaller, lesser-known artists meant that some of his favorites (Bruce Springsteen, U2, Peter Gabriel) missed the playlist.

After seeing and listening through some of his playlist, I was inspired to tackle the project myself. My criteria were a bit different than his. I was less concerned with promoting unknown or lesser-known artists, simply because most of the people who follow me on social media or read my work on this site already know about most of the sort-of-underground artists that I champion. Instead, my quest was to pick either my favorite songs from each year, or the ones that defined those years most. I wanted to be able to listen through the playlist I made and relive my life story.

Here are the rules I followed:
  1. One song per year, no exceptions. No ties, no honorable mentions, no songs bundled together as one. I could discuss other songs in the blurbs for each year, but I had to select a clear winner.
  2. One song per artist. This rule helped me keep my list more diverse and meant that I had to be strategic about the years where I chose songs from which artists. The result was a game that was a lot more challenging and a lot more fun than it would have been otherwise.
  3. Only songs from the years in question could be chosen as winners from those years. In other words, a song from 1975 couldn't be my pick for 2009, even if it defined the year. I had to pick a song from 2009 for 2009.
  4. I also didn't include the side projects or bands of artists who were already on the list in some other capacity. Marvelous 3, for instance, was disqualified because Butch Walker already had a year, while Something Corporate was booted because a different Andrew McMahon project was already on the list.
  5. When possible, I had to give more weight to songs that I lived and listened to during the years in question over songs that I fell in love with in later years. The early years were obviously exceptions to this rule.
  6. I had to still enjoy every song on the list. So no, my Creed phase is not represented. I'm sure you're all disappointed. 
 
Without further ado, here are the songs I chose for every year I've been alive, posted here today to commemorate my 26th birthday. Click here to listen along with the Spotify playlist.
 

1990: Heart - "Cruel Nights" from Brigade

This was the hardest year on the list, for obvious reasons. For one thing, I was only alive for a month and 12 days of 1990, so the year only just barely counts in the first place. For another, I don't really care for any albums that were released the year that I was born. It's probably the only year of the decade that wouldn't put an album anywhere on my top 500 favorites list. Heart's "Cruel Nights" gets the win for being a slick anthem of heartbreak and summer nights. Think of it as more of an introduction to the mix than a true start to the story.

1991: Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers - Learning To Fly, from Into The Great Wide Open

It took me a long time to get into Tom Petty, which means that "Learning to Fly" is not connected to any of my memories from childhood. Still, "Learning to Fly" has been an important song in my life—one that I've related to growing up and striking out on my own. In the summer of 2014, when my wife and I left behind our apartment in Illinois to move back to our home state of Michigan, this was the first song I played in the car for the long journey to my new home.

1992: R.E.M. - "Nightswimming" from Automatic For The People

I don't recall exactly when I first heard "Nightswimming," but it's certainly a song I recall hearing on the radio when I was very young (along with all of the other hits from Automatic for the People). Still my favorite R.E.M. song, "Nightswimming" captures the ache of growing up and summers that don't last for long enough. It is an inarguably perfect song.

1993: Counting Crows - "Mr. Jones" from August & Everything After

"Mr. Jones," the most successful single from Counting Crows' most successful album, was the first song I remember hearing and registering the fact that I was enjoying it. My brother used to play my parents' copy of August on the CD player when we loaded the family into the car for vacations or day trips. "Round Here" is my true favorite from the album, but "Mr. Jones" deserves this slot simply for being the song that probably first ignited my love of music.

1994: Green Day - "When I Come Around" from Dookie

I didn't have a portable CD player until the day I turned 11, which means that my childhood was either defined by what was on the radio or by what my brother was playing on his boom box. "When I Come Around" was both of those things during what I presume was the summer of 1995, and it still captures the sound of summertime for me so many years later. Eventually, I had my brother make me a cassette tape copy of Dookie so I could listen to this song in particular on my own time. Here's hoping I didn't know what "Longview" was about.

1995: Oasis - "Don't Look Back in Anger" from (What's the Story) Morning Glory?

Another album I had my brother make me a cassette copy of, Morning Glory was a huge album for me—to the point where I probably could have chosen any of its 10 proper cuts as my 1995 song. I was close to going for "Champagne Supernova," but I opted for "Don't Look Back in Anger"—the finest song on the record and the best thing either of the Brothers Gallagher ever wrote. When I listen to this song today, I still hear a lot of my childhood in there—camping trips with my dad, driving late into the night with my family on our way to see my grandparents in New Hampshire, etc.—but I also hear the indelible tunefulness of an ambitious band getting as close as they ever got to showing up the Beatles.

1996: The Wallflowers - "One Headlight" from Bringing Down The Horse

Here's where it gets interesting: the first song I can ever remember bestowing with the title of "my favorite song," from the first band I ever remember bestowing with the title of "my favorite band." "One Headlight" was a shock to my young ears: catchy, mournful, contemplative, and thought provoking. There's a reason I eventually found my home in folk, Americana, country, and roots rock—both as a songwriter and a listener—and that reason is this song.

1997: Third Eye Blind - "Motorcycle Drive By" from Third Eye Blind

Third Eye Blind was one of my favorite albums as a kid, thanks largely to the parade of hits near the beginning. Truth be told, it probably would have been more accurate to list "Semi-Charmed Life" here, but "Motorcycle Drive By" was too important a song to pass up. The best piece of songwriting that Stephen Jenkins ever gave the world, "Motorcycle Drive By" is a classic deep cut from a classic record and one of my top 10 songs of all time. It's a song that continues to hold a lot of gravity for me to this day—especially the gorgeous, bittersweet imagery of the final verse.

1998: Goo Goo Dolls            - "Black Balloon" from Dizzy up the Girl

The singles from Dizzy up the Girl were on the radio all the time on morning rides to school when I was in first and second grade. "Broadway," "Iris," and "Slide" are all classic songs that I relate very much with growing up, but "Black Balloon" was and is my favorite. A sweeping melody and a lyric that is more than meets the eye make it the band's best song, for my money.

1999: Foo Fighters - "Learn to Fly" from There Is Nothing Left to Lose

There are albums that matter more to me from 1999 than this one—from Jimmy Eat World's Clarity to the Marvelous 3's Hey! Album. But when I try to look back at what life was like in 1999, "Learn to Fly" is probably the song that comes to mind in the sharpest relief. A classic radio rock hit that just sounds like the end of a millennium, "Learn to Fly" was a song I loved every time it came up on the airwaves—even before I knew who it was by.

2000: U2 - "Walk On" from All That You Can't Leave Behind

2000 was probably the first time I ever heard a U2 song, back when "Beautiful Day" was inescapable on the radio. Still, if there's one song from All That Can't Leave Behind that will stay with me forever, it's "Walk On." At my eighth grade graduation in 2005, I made sure this song was on the soundtrack for our big class slideshow. It was also there when I graduated from high school in 2009, and when I graduated from college in 2013. Few songs say "moving on to bigger and better things" quite like this one. Seeing it live in 2011, at the end of the main set on the 360 tour, was a life-affirming moment.

2001: The Calling - "Wherever You Will Go" from Camino Pamero

2001 was one of the hardest years for me to pick a song, for several reasons. First, it's my least favorite year of music from the millennium so far. Second, my favorite albums either came from artists that are already on this list elsewhere (Jimmy Eat World, John Mayer), or were records that I discovered way after the fact (Gold by Ryan Adams, Rockin' the Suburbs by Ben Folds). Third, 2001 was during my "wasteland" years, when my brother had stopped buying CDs or making copies of them for me, and when all my listening was governed by the radio. I actually spent a lot of time back then listening to the top 40 countdown each week, and my favorite radio single was "Wherever You Will Go" by The Calling. It's kind of dated and super cheesy, but both of those qualities seem appropriate when I look back at fourth grade. It's also immortalized in the first episode of Smallville, and really, what's more 2001 than that?

2002: Bruce Springsteen - "My City Of Ruins" from The Rising

The first Bruce Springsteen song I remember connecting to wasn't "Thunder Road" or "Born to Run"; it was this fantastic closing track from the Boss's 2002 comeback album. My brother bought my stepdad a copy of The Rising for Christmas 2002, and we definitely played that record on the stereo while opening presents. I knew that "My City of Ruins" was a song that had been associated with September 11th, so I paid extra attention when the disc got there. It remains one of my favorite Bruce songs for how it mixes mourning and uplift so effectively. In 2012, Bruce repurposed it as a stirring eulogy for Clarence Clemons, one of the most poignant moments of any live show I've ever seen.

2003: John Mayer - "Wheel" from Heavier Things

John Mayer would make better albums and write better songs later in his career, but I knew from the moment that I started this project that "Wheel" was going to own 2003. Heavier Things was the first album I ever bought with my own money, and I remember listening to it every single day after school that fall—usually twice. The closing track, "Wheel" always hit me the hardest for its poetic lyrics about departures and goodbyes, as well as some extremely effective vocal layering at the end.

2004: Jimmy Eat World - "23" from Futures

2004 was the year of my musical evolution. It's the year I started buying albums religiously and the year that saw the release of three of my top 10 albums of all time. This slot easily could have gone to Butch Walker (whose Letters was my album of the year) or Green Day (whose American Idiot I played on repeat for an entire month that year, between my birthday and Christmas). But Futures has to win for how it held me together when I thought I was going to have to leave my hometown and everything I'd ever known behind. More than any other album, Futures ignited my love for music, and nothing captures the spirit of that adventurous autumn better than the climactic sprawl of "23."

2005: Jack's Mannequin - "Rescued" from Everything In Transit

I was late to the party on Everything in Transit, but I couldn't let 2005 slide by without listing a song from one of my all-time favorite records. Everything in Transit may not have explicitly defined 2005—to be honest, Butch Walker's Letters did, and that wasn't in contention. But Everything in Transit did define pretty much the entirety of my youth beyond this year—from high school summertimes to high school graduation, all the way to falling in love for the first time. "Rescued" was always my favorite, the poignant piano ballad that laid the season to rest with a contemplative dive in to a cold September swimming pool.

2006: Dashboard Confessional - "Dusk And Summer" from Dusk And Summer

It's possible that there isn't a single song in the world that means more to me than this one. Earlier this year, for the 10th anniversary of Dusk and Summer, I detailed how this song played a key role in my relationship with my wife. Four years before that, though, "Dusk and Summer" had already become my go-to summer night song. No song aches quite like this one, from the simple strummed guitar chords to the way Chris Carrabba's voice cracks up to falsetto on the outro. To this day, when I hear this song, it takes me back to the end of every summer since 2006.

2007: Matt Nathanson - "Car Crash" from Some Mad Hope

In the story this playlist tells, "Dusk and Summer" feels like the end of youthful innocence. That's fitting, since the fall of my junior year of high school brought more responsibility, more doubt, more challenges, and more mistakes than ever before. I finally had a driver's license, I was playing the lead in the school musical, classes were getting harder, college was looming, and things suddenly didn't seem so black and white anymore. But the stress and anxiety of it all was also accompanied by a newfound feeling of freedom and possibility, and for me, that's all wrapped up perfectly in the words and swell of Matt Nathanson's "Car Crash."

2008: Butch Walker - "Closer To The Truth And Further From The Sky" from Sycamore Meadows

Considering how formative Butch Walker's music was for me, both to my tastes and to who I am as a person, it's almost remarkable that it took until 2008 for him to snag a year on this list. But "Closer to the Truth and Further from the Sky" was just too good an opportunity to pass up. Like the previous year, 2008 brought the unmistakable strain and excitement of growing up, along with plenty of firsts and lasts: my first heartbreak; my last first day of high school; my last musical. "Closer to the Truth and Further from the Sky" not only encapsulates the antsy excitement of almost being done with one major life chapter, but it also wore its Springsteen influence so proudly that it partially inspired the deep dive I took into the Boss's catalog during Christmas break. The rest is history.

2009: Will Hoge - "Even If It Breaks Your Heart" from The Wreckage

If we're being honest, my defining song of 2009—the year I graduated from high school—was "Thunder Road" all the way. But since picking songs from 1975 is obviously against the rules, and since "Closer to the Truth" already encapsulated my end of high school excitement, I opted for a song that captures my first autumn at college. I enjoyed my first year of college, but I was also pretty homesick and had some doubts about whether or not I was in the right major. (Spoiler alert: I wasn't.) The Wreckage was an album I played a lot on the road trips I took back home on the weekends. Rather than hit a bunch of college parties, I'd frequently make the three-hour drive north to get a few home-cooked meals, do my laundry, download a shit ton of music, see friends from high school, and go to movies with my parents. I did a lot of soul searching and growing up on those solo road trips, and this song, with its battle cry of a chorus ("keep on dreaming even if it breaks your heart") hit me pretty hard. It still does.

2010: Chad Perrone - "Under Different Circumstances"          from Release

2010 was the year I fell in love with the girl I ended up marrying. We shared an incredible summer together that was defined largely by two songs, both written by Chad Perrone. The first, a soaring love song called "Blinded," came from his 2008 record Wake. It was the first song I ever put on a mixtape for her and I went on to quote it in my rehearsal dinner toast. The second was this song, a shattering tune about unrequited love from Perrone's then-current album, Release. When I drove away from her and our perfect summer together, on my way back to school, Release was the album that gave me the strength to keep driving, despite the fact that I knew for certain I didn't want to be anywhere she wasn't. It was the start of a lengthy long-distance relationship, but we made it work. Years later, Chad Perrone would personally ask me to write the bio section for his website. Life unfolds in some pretty cools ways sometimes.

2011: The Dangerous Summer - "No One's Gonna Need You More" from War Paint

I'm not sure if I've ever played an album as many times in such a short period of time as I did War Paint in the summer of 2011. This album was my undisputed summer soundtrack. Every time I climbed into the car, it was War Paint. Every time I got home from work late at night and wanted to wind down with some music, it was War Paint. "No One's Gonna Need You More" was and is my favorite song on the album, and its torrential rush of sound still takes me back to those sun-soaked days and endless nights.

2012: Yellowcard - "Southern Air" from Southern Air

The end of summer 2012 felt distinctly like the end of another era. My girlfriend was moving to Illinois to start a new job, the dinner theater I'd worked at for three summers was closing, and I was finishing out the final summer in my hometown before my impending college graduation. Southern Air came out toward the end of the season and captured snapshots of all of that. When I drove away and left that summer behind, it was with this record on the stereo. "Always Summer" could have made the cut, too, but "Southern Air" wins if only for how it said the exact words I was thinking the day I left: "This will always be home."

2013: The 1975 - "Robbers" from The 1975

I never saw The 1975 coming. The day this album started streaming was the Friday before Labor Day weekend, and I remember hastily downloading a rip onto my iPod before my girlfriend and I drove the six hours home from Illinois to Northern Michigan that evening. But I happened to be proposing the next day, and "Robbers" just came along at the perfect minute to soundtrack it all. When I listen to this song, I still hear the magic and excitement of that perfect summer day, from the moment I picked up the ring to the moment she said yes.

2014: Noah Gundersen - "First Defeat" from Ledges

In 2014, I married my wife, we moved back to Michigan, and my grandfather passed away. These three events are all among the biggest things that have happened to me during my adulthood, and encapsulating them all in a single song is simply not possible. "First Defeat" was my favorite song of the year, though, an emotive marvel of a track that charts the relationship of two people who are completely wrong for each other, but who can't seem to quit each other either. If the year had a single overarching soundtrack, it was Gundersen's Ledges, a masterpiece of modern folk that added a new name to my favorite artists list and pushed my tastes in a rootsier direction.

2015: Jason Isbell - "Speed Trap Town" from Something More Than Free

2015 saw probably the biggest evolution my music tastes have seen in a single year since the formative months of 2004. There are so many songs I could have picked here, from Butch Walker's "Fathers Day" (which bottled up a lot of the residual grief I was feeling over my grandpa dying) to Dawes' "All Your Favorite Bands" (which anchored my summer soundtrack). But "Speed Trap Town"—the saddest song from Jason Isbell's Something More Than Free—has to win for two reasons. First, Isbell's music pushed me to explore country music further, which quickly became my go-to genre. Second, Isbell's style of songwriting influenced my own writing as I started crafting the songs that would make up my debut album. Many years from now, I imagine I'll look back at 2015 and see "Speed Trap Town" as one of those paradigm-shifting songs.

2016: Ryan Beaver - "Dark" from Rx

"Let the lights go out in this town and in my heart/Bring it on, I ain't afraid of the dark." If there was song this year marked by a more resilient and defiant proclamation, I didn't hear it. The song that couplet comes from, Ryan Beaver's "Dark," is perhaps my favorite song of 2016—an exhilarating Springsteen-style anthem that manages to fit all of the hopes, dreams, heartbreaks, and failures of a life into the space of four minutes. In a year that brought plenty of darkness, "Dark" was the song I kept coming back to, a sobering reminder that fighting hard and facing down the tornadoes of life—even if you have to do it with a drink clutched firmly in your hand—is always worth the risk.

***

I've always been told that I have a great memory. I think that has less to do with my brain chemistry and more to do with music. The songs, artists, and albums that make up this list are like signposts that have dotted the years throughout my life. I can remember when I first heard them and when I listened to them obsessively, and I can also remember what was going on in my life while they were playing as soundtrack. As a result, I happen to be uncannily good at vividly remembering key moments from my life, or recalling which year certain events took place in. I suppose that's one of the greatest gifts that music can give: the clarity and permanence of memories that might have otherwise faded. 26 years in, I am still in absolute awe of this artform and everything it can do.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Mid-Year 2016: The Best Albums I've Heard So Far


Let's be honest: mid-year lists are kind of superfluous. I expect that my opinions on the records below will continue to shift. Add six months' worth of new releases, and my list come December will almost certainly look nothing like this one does. With that said, I've heard a lot of great albums this year, and I wanted an opportunity to reflect and think about which ones have resonated the most. All 10 of these records (plus the bonus EP) get the highest recommendation from me.

Happy July and happier listening!

1. Parker Millsap - The Very Last Day



With a force-of-nature voice, a sharp talent for storytelling, and more than a bit of wit and charisma, Parker Millsap weaves The Very Last Day into 2016's best album—so far, anyway. He's only 23 years old and this is only his second record, but when you hear him wail on "You Gotta Move" or spin a tale about the homosexual son of a preacher on "Heaven Sent," you might swear he's got twice that many under his belt.
 
2. Sturgill Simpson - A Sailor's Guide to Earth


Sturgill Simpson's breakthrough record, 2014's Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, was an explosion of classic country, tinged with psychedelia. The Kentucky singer/songwriter paints with an even broader brush on the follower up, A Sailor's Guide to Earth—to the point where many of his fans cried betrayal and bitched about it not being "country enough." Fuck that. On this record, "country music" is anything Simpson wants it to be. He pulls in influences from a dozen genres to create a love letter to his new son, from soul to progressive rock to grunge and beyond.

3. Brian Fallon - Painkillers


On his first solo record, the frontman from The Gaslight Anthem opts out of reinventing the wheel. Instead, he surges straight down the center of the highway, writing songs that feature his usual mix of classic rock, folk, Americana, and references to favorite songs and movie stars. If you wanted a more polarizing record in the vein of Gaslight's Get Hurt, you were probably disappointed by Painkillers. This album, though, showcases Brian Fallon as an artist who knows what he does well and is perfectly content to put out a record that emphasizes strength of songwriting craft over surprises. The decision to hold steady pays off, with cuts like "A Wonderful Life," "Rosemary," and "Open All Night" ranking among his best ever.

4. The 1975 - I like it when you sleep…


On their debut, 2013's self-titled album, The 1975 were a pop band willing to draw as much from emo as they were from boy bands. They were unique, but not flamboyantly so. On the follow up, though, these boys from Manchester transform into the most audacious band currently making music. Long ambient interludes transition into straight-up pop jams, while the album's most John Hughes soundtrack-worthy anthem ("This Must Be My Dream") is just two tracks away from a raw acoustic heartbreaker ("Nana"). The record—like its title—is a hair unwieldy, but start combing the tracklist for inessential songs and you'll make an interesting discovery: there aren't any.

5. The Hotelier - Goodness


 
When it comes to scene classics, it's usually not very hard to tell what's going to stand the test of time. From the first time I listened to Goodness, it sounded like something that kids were going to be discovering 10 years down the road, in the same way that they still discover stuff like Clarity. Less catchy and intense than its predecessor, 2014's Home, Like NoPlace Is There, Goodness is also much more life-affirming, trading the dark emotional doldrums of Home for flickers of love, wistful reflection, and uplift. The songs aren't always as striking as the ones from the last album, but some of them—like "Opening Mail for My Grandmother" and "End of Reel"—are as viscerally engaging as anything this band has ever written.

6. Josh Kelley - New Lane Road



To the outside eye, Josh Kelley peaked early in his career, landing a minor hit off his 2003 debut album with "Amazing." Fast-forward 13 years, though, and Kelley is the rare, almost unheard-of artist who is making his best music with his eighth full-length. A collision of pop, soul, country, folk, and even a little bit of gospel, New Lane Road is as instantly timeless as new albums come. Kelley's voice has always been his not-so-secret weapon, so smooth and delicate one minute and full of force the next. Here, he parlays it into more than a few remarkable moments of pathos, with the bookends ("It's Your Move" and "Only God Can Stop Her Now") standing out most clearly.

7. Maren Morris - Hero



The hooks on Maren Morris's major label debut are so huge that it's not hard to see why she is being heralded as the new country "It" girl. On songs like "Sugar," "Rich," and "80s Mercedes," she effortlessly combines wit, sense for melody, and girl power into an irresistible sound that isn't quite pop and isn't quite country. It's on the ballads where Morris really sets herself apart from the crowd, though, with the likes of "I Could Use a Love Song," "I Wish I Was," and the soaring "Once" sounding like iconic classics in the making.

8. Donovan Woods - Hard Settle, Ain't Troubled


Donovan Woods has always been a talented songwriter, but Hard Settle, Ain't Troubled, his fourth full-length, takes his chops to the next level. More experienced as a writer now than he was a few years ago (having landed songs on a few albums by major Nashville country artists), he conveys different kinds of desolation here with an eye for detail and a clear willingness to twist the knife. From the fracturing relationship of "On the Nights You Stay Home" to the universal regret of "The First Time," all the way to the roller coaster of emotions that defines "Leaving Nashville," Woods will break your heart at least half a dozen times on this record.

9. Sister Hazel - Lighter in the Dark


And here I thought I'd outgrown Sister Hazel. One of my favorite bands from childhood, this roots rock act from Gainesville hadn't made a record that resonated with me since 2006's Absolutely. Lighter in the Dark revitalizes their sound, taking the band in the most overtly "country" direction of their career. The result is a bona-fide summer soundtrack, crammed with road-trip-ready anthems ("Fall off the Map," "Run Highway Run"), classic rock throwbacks (the Eagles-flavored "Prettiest Girl at the Dance"), and dusky, lantern-lit ballads ("Ten Candle Days"). Suffice to say I've reached for this album a lot for runs or long drives on sunny days.
 
10. Brandy Clark - Big Day in a Small Town

Brandy Clark's sophomore record is a bit glossier than her debut (2013's 12 Stories), but don't mistake this album as a mainstream sellout maneuver. Clark is still one of the best songwriters in the country music genre, and this record includes at least five of the year's best compositions. Clark can spin a great chorus (the gorgeous and wistful "Homecoming Queen," or the anthem of heartbreak that is "Love Can Go to Hell"), but her secret weapon is the details: the son who can't talk about his late father until after he's had a couple drinks in "Since You've Gone to Heaven," or the single mother in "Three Kids, No Husband" whose only moments to herself come during smoke breaks at work. At her best, Clark's understanding of the beaten and downtrodden is almost Springsteen-level.

EP: Steve Moakler – Steve Moakler


If Steve Moakler's self-titled EP were a few songs longer, I would have been tempted to include it on this list. Moakler's brand of pop country is breezy summertime fare, but his unique voice and his eye for detail elevate his songs above anything and everything on country radio these days. "Summer without Her" is what Dashboard Confessional's Dusk and Summer might have sounded like if Chris Carrabba had taken a more Nashville-driven approach, while "Suitcase" has a hook that should make Moakler famous. Here's hoping that we'll see a full-length before year's end.