My Top 5 features a few artists you would expect and a few you wouldn’t. As always, there’s a band that I would have never guessed I would put in a Top 10 list (The National) and some that I absolutely would have expected (Jd McPherson, U2, and Jason Isbell) and then a newcomer (Julien Baker).
If you haven’t already checked out my Honorable Mentions or my 10-6 you should do that now, and then read about my top 5. And let me know who is in your top 5 and/or who I missed this year.
5. Sleep Well Beast, The National
I’ve never really been a fan of The National. As I’ve said in the past, I have always felt like they are similar to Interpol, except Interpol is actually fun. But, for some reason I decided to give this new album a shot and it’s slowly become one of my favorites of the year. Most songs on this album are fairly upbeat (for The National), including one of the best songs “Day I Die”. I love how the song with the most depressing title and lyrical content is actually one of the most up-tempo and musically bright songs. It’s almost like lead singer Matt Beringer wrote the lyrics and then was like, “ok this is too depressing, let’s hide it in an exciting song.”
Other great songs are “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” (which is basically the exact title you’d come up with if you were told to create a fake song by The National) and “Carin at the Liquor Store”, a piano driven ballad that I think is directed at Matt’s wife Carin.
I read somewhere that you’re not supposed to parse The National’s lyrics too much because they are just a vehicle for Matt’s baritone voice. This is the type of pretentious tripe that makes me not want to listen to The National or associate with anyone who actually does. I just tried to read something else about the album and it said it was full of “Super-political love songs” and, yeah I’m done reading about this. I’m just going to enjoy the album for what I think it is because we live in a post-modern world where my interpretation of art is always right.
4. UNDIVIDED HEART & SOUL,JD McPherson
We go from an album that I didn’t know I would like, to an album that I 100% knew I would love. JD McPherson is an incredibly unique rock n roll star, in that he actually plays real rock ‘n’ roll. His first album was essentially a homage to 1950s rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly, but McPherson’s music has since evolved into something totally unique. He still has that guitar and rock piano driven style, but he’s amped up the use of modern effects. “Lucky Penny” is an absolute monster track. While his first album had some songs that seemed more like they were stuck in another era (references to “party lines” for example), UNDIVIDED HEART & SOUL is timeless in lyrical content.
Anyone who’s heard McPherson’s songs knows he can write and sing a rock song with the best of them, but this album stands out in its ballads as well. McPherson’s unique writing style is apparent when he croons “Don’t pass my doorstep, if you’re hunting for sugar” on “Hunting for Sugar” or on “Jubilee” when he sings “Jubilee, why you gotta strike me down?/I shatter into pieces when you come around, could you ever feel the same?/You were always stronger than me.”
McPherson, a Broken Bow, OK native, moved to Nashville before recording this album and the record acknowledgements thank Dan Auerbach, though he’s not officially credited on anything. McPherson can sound a lot like Auerbach at times, I imagine they are kindred spirits musically. I’d love to see a collaboration between the two.
3. Songs of Experience, U2
I think U2 is a lot like Star Wars. They both became astronomically popular in the late 70s and early 80s, they both are still super popular and sell out wherever they play, and, because of this, they bring out worshippers and critics from all corners. You can tear down any U2 album or Star Wars movie with two generic criticisms: “this is the exact same thing they always do” or “this is so different, who are they trying to be?”
I’ve heard both of those criticisms over and over again about Songs of Experience and about The Last Jedi. I’m not going to get into the The Last Jedi here, but I am getting into Songs of Experience, which is brilliant and important and maybe the biggest surprise of 2017. I say surprise because even though I think U2 is the best band in the world, I didn’t know if they were still capable of the genius of their earlier days. I think SOE is their best album since Achtung Baby (don’t @ me, wait actually do @ me if you disagree and tell me your address so we can fight).
And to address the two easy U2 dismissals: Yes, this album does in fact sound like similar to what they’ve always done, THEY ARE THE SAME FOUR GUYS THEY WERE; and also yes, it’s different IT’S CALLED MUSICAL EVOLUTION.
Anyway, the album starts with actually one of the weaker songs with “Love is all We Have Left” so if you hopped off right then, jump back in because Bono doesn’t use a megaphone in any other songs. After that, it jumps into the bluesy rocker “Lights of Home” which is really where it should have started. Following that is the meat of the album. “You’re the Best Thing About Me” is a great love song, written with sort of a naive childish perspective, yet informed by a man with life experience, hence the album name. “You’re the best thing about me, the best things are easy to destroy.”
“Get Out of Your Own Way” is definitely the most typical U2 sounding song on the album, it could have come straight off of The Joshua Tree. So, it’s not incredible but it’s also not bad. “American Soul” is like the modern “Bullet the Blue Sky”. Bono has always been in love with America and what it could and should be, and he never has a problem calling it out when he feels it’s failed. “American Soul” addresses a lot of those feelings. It’s a hard rocking song, that starts out with a few lines from Kendrick Lamar. This is definitely one you can see playing really well in a big arena, with a big giant video behind Bono exposing the ills in American society.
Other incredible songs are “Red Flag Day”, which has kind of a Police feel to it, and the best song on the album “The Blackout”. That song is U2’s best song since “Beautiful Day” (again, please @ me). Starting with the always great bass of Adam Clayton, the song builds until the chorus which is perfectly designed to make the crowd bounce up and down. This will definitely be a show stopper on U2’s next tour. This video is awesome and this album is awesome and if you’ve got criticisms of U2 you better come at me with more than those two lazy takes.
2. Turn Out the Lights, Julien Baker
This album shook my world over the last few months. After being told I might like her music (thanks Emily) in November I started listening to Julien Baker during a 40 minute nighttime drive. I think that was the perfect scenario to be introduced to Baker’s sparsely arranged, slow building music. But what makes Julien Baker so incredible isn’t the music or her voice, it’s her lyrics. Her deeply insightful lyrics belie her age (22) and make it sound like she’s lived a million lives. She’s obviously been through tons and tons of pain and addiction and loss and depression and hurt, and her vulnerability about these things makes her music incredibly moving. She doesn’t hide anything in her music, to the point where if you met her you might want to just give her a hug and tell her it’s all going to be alright.
Though there is a deep sadness in most of her songs, on this most recent album Baker cuts a more hopeful figure than on her debut Sprained Ankle. In Turn Out the Lights, she doesn’t dwell on the pain so much as use it as a vehicle to take you to the source of hope. When I first listened to Baker I knew nothing about her and it was through her songs that I began to get a picture of who she was as a person. I think that’s the best way to approach her music. If you read about her first and then listen to the music your interpretations will be informed by what you’ve read. With an artist that is so deeply personal and vulnerable in their music, it’s sometimes best to just let the music speak for itself first.
The overriding theme in most of Baker’s music is the idea of “I can’t be the only one who feels this way.” I saw her show when she came to Dallas a few weeks ago, and judging by the room full of people singing along with her as she stood alone onstage with an electric guitar and keyboard, it seems that the answer is, “no, you’re not alone.”
Every human being at some point has felt that way. We’ve all felt that we are the only person as broken, as lonely, as angry, as fearful as we are. Baker gives voice to those inner feelings better than really anyone I’ve ever heard. One of her strengths is the way she can distill these complicated feelings into simple words and phrases. It takes a certain skill to be able write songs with such deep feeling, but in words that people actually use. Jason Isbell does this better than anyone in the world. Baker writes the way people actually speak, which makes her songs so much more impactful because you don’t have to question their meaning.
I’d love to break down every one of her songs line for line, but you wouldn’t love that so I’ll just take what I think is her most impressive bit of songwriting on this album “Happy to Be Here”.
If I could do what I want/I would become an electrician/I’d climb inside my ears/And I would rearrange the wires in my brain
A different me would be inhabiting this body/I’d have two cars, a garage, a job/And I would go to church on Sunday
Baker says the song is about being proactive in a recovery program and the idea that you’ll never truly be done with recovery. Everyone who’s ever gone into a recovery program thinks that there is an end point where they get to be “fixed”, but as Baker illustrates throughout this song, that’s not truly how it works. Most of the song is directed to God, asking Him just exactly why she is wired the way that she is. The next verse ends with the devastating line: I was just wondering if there’s any way that you made a mistake.
There isn’t a chorus in the song, the only thing approaching one is the refrain at the end of the next verse which is repeated at the very end of the song. Baker’s voice crescendos into almost a yell by the end of it, showing a desperation for a fix that she can’t seem to find: I heard there’s a fix for everything/then why, then why, then why not me?
At this point in the song, Baker takes the story to a recovery meeting. She’s appears uncomfortable, feeling as if she doesn’t belong but knowing it’s important to be there. This verse ends with a phrase that I haven’t been able to stop turning over in my head ever since I first head it. In fact I replayed the entire song multiple times after hearing it for the first time.
Am I honest to admit or just a hypocrite?/I know I should be being optimistic but I’m doubtful I can change/Grit my teeth and try to act deserving/When I know there is nowhere I can hide/From your humiliating grace
We talk about God’s grace all the time in church. We speak about it in glowing terms, in awe-filled terms, in academic terms, in personal terms, yet, I’ve never heard it described in such a powerful, devastating, and deeply personal way as this. “Humiliating grace“. How could God’s grace, the thing which saves us from our deep depravity be humiliating? It’s the point Baker has been building to throughout the song, if we think of ourselves as messed up, as good-for-nothing, as broken, and as undeserving, when the God of the Universe is offering you forgiveness it can sometimes make you feel humiliated that he would even consider you.
But Baker ties it all together at the end, repeating the refrain from earlier but in a different context. Instead of seeking the “fix” for herself, she now just wonders if God’s humiliating grace is the thing she truly needs.
Because if you swear that it’s true/Then I have to believe/What I hear evangelicals say on TV/And if there’s enough left after everyone else/Then why, then why, then why
God why not me?
Sorry if I over-explained something that Baker already explains enough with her straightforward writing, but I haven’t been able to shake this song from my head since the first time I heard it.
1. The Nashville Sound, Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit
I debated for a long time on whether this album or Julien Baker’s should be No. 1, but what ultimately settled it for me was two things: I wanted to guard against recency bias as I have only been listening to Baker for a few months and Isbell’s album came out at the beginning of the year. I also feel that this album carries with it a bit more importance as a force for cultural change.
Country music is still the most important genre for cultural change in America today. Of course rap and pop music are widely listened to, and rap is a major force for change, but country reaches into parts of America that other genres never touch. It is one of the few genres where youth doesn’t automatically trump experience. Most rappers and pop stars are washed by 30, but country stars maintain influence and popularity well into their 60s. Country radio does a massive disservice to it’s audience by playing the artists they play and the songs they play. Country music isn’t about pasture parties and tight jeans and calling girls “girl.” Country is “three chords and the truth.” Meaning, it might be simple musically, but when you listen to a country artist you know you’re hearing about real life.
Nobody is more real than Jason Isbell. Isbell cut his teeth with the Drive-By Truckers, writing some of their best songs while dealing with alcoholism that eventually led to divorce from his wife and from the band. He finally got clean in 2011 with the help of his current wife Amanda Shires (a skilled fiddle player and singer in her own right). His first effort after getting clean was the heartrending Southeastern, which put him on the path to “Americana” superstardom. I put that word in quotes because it’s a made up genre that basically means “not pop country.” The follow up to that album was Something More Than Free which was also brilliant, but showed a more hopeful side to Isbell. But The Nashville Sound is a bit of a departure from those other two. For one, Isbell credits his band The 400 Unit on the album, something he hadn’t done on the other two. I think he did that because this one definitely has more of a rock ‘n’ roll feel to some songs.
Isbell has always been incredible at telling stories of others through his songs. Where Julien Baker speaks exclusively from her own experience, Isbell often inhabits characters in his songs. He has an amazing ability to speak exactly the way you’d expect certain characters to speak. On the blistering “Cumberland Gap”, Isbell tells the story of an out-of-work miner in rural Tennessee. He doesn’t use flowery language to dress up the man’s plight, instead he talks like you’d expect him to talk in a bar in Fork Mountain.
I thought about moving away/But what would my mama say?/I’m all that she has left and I’m with her every day
The chorus repeats the phrase “Maybe the Cumberland Gap just swallows you whole” over and over again to drive home the hopelessness that some people feel in this part of the country. It’s a great up tempo country rock song that you could listen to over and over again without truly thinking about the words. Another song with a similar feel is “Hope the High Road” which was the first single off the album and a departure from some of Isbell’s other efforts.
The hardest hitting songs on the album are “White Man’s World”, “Anxiety” and “If We Were Vampires”.
Isbell is a very political person, often campaigning for candidates he believes in, even if that means many of his more conservative fans get annoyed. So, when you see a song called “White Man’s World” you have a pretty good idea where it’s going, yet it’s a measure of Isbell’s skills as a songwriter and his band’s skill as musicians that the song is both exactly what you’d expect and so much better than you could guess. When you first hear it you may think “Yeah ok I see his points.” And then you listen again and again and dig deeper and deeper to see exactly where he’s coming from and the song gets better each time. The album title comes from the line “Mama wants to change that Nashville sound” which refers to Shires’ campaigning for more women to be played on country radio (which is honestly such a ridiculous thing to have to campaign for when you consider the schlock they actually do play).
“Anxiety” is a first person song that came from Isbell beginning to suffer from anxiety. Again, pretty straightforward, yet infinitely thought-provoking. I’ve never suffered from anxiety, but I know many people who do and I’ve never been able to get a picture of what that must be like until I heard this song. The chorus blares
Anxiety/How do you always get the best of me?/I’m out here living in a fantasy/I can’t enjoy a g**damn thing
Anxiety/Why am I never where I am supposed to be?/Even with my lover sleeping close to me/I’m wide awake and I’m in pain
If you suffer from anxiety, this is probably nothing surprising at all to you, but for Isbell to boil it down this way really illuminated the struggle for people who don’t experience it. It made me more empathetic, which is the goal of any song of this nature.
And then we have “If We Were Vampires” which is the saddest, most poignant, most deeply loving song I’ve heard in a long time. I’ve maybe listened to it four times total because it makes me want to cry, which is not a common feeling for me. It’s an ode to his wife, with a chorus that rips your heart right out of your chest.
It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever/Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone/Maybe we’ll get forty years together/But one day I’ll be gone/Or one day you’ll be gone
When you make your wedding vows you say a lot of really macabre sounding things like “in sickness and in health” and “til death do us part” and maybe because it’s dressed up in language we don’t use anymore it doesn’t feel so strong than when you hear “Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone.”
I mean, when you put it that way, it’s devastating. When you’re young and you’re looking at your young spouse you don’t think “I’ve got to take advantage of every single moment with this person because one day one of us is going to be alone.” But it’s true. In the grand picture of life your marriage might be the thing that lasts the longest, but it’s still not that long of a time. Maybe 40 years, as Isbell says, but most marriages don’t last even that long. So take advantage of the time you have. Great songs change your perspective, make you more empathetic, and change the way you interact with people. This album has several songs that do just that and that’s why it’s the best of the year.
Anyway, listen to “Cumberland Gap” so you aren’t too sad and then later listen to “If We Were Vampires” when you’re alone.