Obsessive Year-End List Fest 2017: Favorite Songs

It’s that time of year again where I run through the list of songs that inspired me, entertained me, or just plain got stuck in my head for amusing reasons, more than any other songs in the last 12 months. Most of these were released in 2017. Some came out in 2016 and I either didn’t hear them until this year or didn’t come to fully appreciate them in time for last year’s list. I’ve given brief explanations and YouTube links for the Top 30. For the rest… just check the reviews where they’re linked, if you’re curious.

And as always, many of these songs (limit one per artist) are collected in my 2017 in a Nutshell playlist over on Spotify.

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What Am I Listening To? – December 2017

U2 – Songs of Experience
I’ve been looking forward to this one ever since it was promised as a companion album to 2014’s Songs of Innocence. But I feel like my eagerness to listen and re-listen to this one dissipated more quickly than it has with U2’s last few albums. I still love the band, but despite their ability to still write songs that feel energetic and vital, the production isn’t doing them any favors, and that renders even some of the biggest rockers on this album a bit limp. I hate to say they’re showing their age, because I don’t think meaningful rock music should only be the domain of young people. But the passion feels neutered, especially considering how thinly the guitars and drums are rendered on songs like “Lights of Home” and “The Blackout” that are supposed to be a bit grittier/darker than U2’s usual. There are some solid pop anthems here, I guess… and some disappointingly weak ballads. I do appreciate how “American Soul” and “13 (There Is a Light)” bring sentiments first heard on “Volcano” and “Song For Someone” full circle – there’s thematic resonance here even when the music falls a bit flat.

The Lone Bellow – Walk into a Storm
Album #3 is mostly more of the same for this country/Americana trio, which has wisely relocated from New York to Nashville since we last heard from them on Then Came the Morning. At this point I consider The Lone Bellow more of a singles band than an album band, which is to say there are a few barn-burners up front here, but the deep cuts aren’t doing as much for me, and while the vocals are passionate as always, the overall themes and musical ideas heard in most of the songs are kind of old hat. I do love the obvious Fleetwood Mac influence that comes out in “Deeper in the Water” and the string melody in “May You Be Well” that is strongly reminiscent of The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony”. But these moments come dangerously close to plagiarism, which probably means that my other favorite moment, Kanene’s lead vocal on the rollicking “Feather”, is borrowing heavily from some other artist I can’t pinpoint. These guys are entertaining, but not particularly original.

Green Day – Greatest Hits: God’s Favorite Band
The first half of this 22-track compilation is a decent history lesson for someone like me who has only been into Green Day since the American Idiot years. I have passing familiarity with their early hits, including a few like “Minority” and “Brain Stew” that I knew I enjoyed but couldn’t remember the titles of until hearing them here for the first time in several years. I can’t say I’ve ever felt compelled to sit down and listen to any of their older albums from front to back, and even finding a few of their old tracks here that I do enjoy doesn’t really change that. The picks from American Idiot onward are somewhat predictable, even disappointing in the case of 21st Century Breakdown, considering how poorly the two big singles “Know Your Enemy” and “21 Guns” represented the creative breadth of that album. The completist in me thinks there should be at least one song from each installment of the Uno/Dos/Tre! trilogy here, rather than all of it being represented by the lone single “Oh Love”, but then I remember: I didn’t like those albums at all, so who cares? Apparently not Green Day’s record label. That just leaves Revolution Radio, which is represented by two strong single and a rather baffling inclusion of the ballad “Ordinary World”, re-recorded with a guest vocal from Miranda Lambert. It’s not that exciting. Neither is the new track “Back in the USA”, which feels like political Green Day by the numbers at this point. Green Day may be God’s favorite band, but I’m still not entirely convinced they should be one of mine. (Side note: I love the stained glass motif in the cover art, which references the cover images from all the other albums these singles came from.)

Maroon 5 – Red Pill Blues
WHY DO I CONTINUE TO LISTEN TO THESE GUYS? I know they’re only going to disappoint me, even when my expectations are low to begin with. I had this album saved in my Spotify library since late October after seeing some overwhelmingly negative reviews, and yet it took me well over a month to work up the courage to actually hear how bad it was for myself. The addition of two band members hasn’t made them sound like more of a band – this is just pathetically sterile, warmed over R&B, which cares about no form of self-expression other than re-establishing Adam Levine as a sex symbol wavering back and forth between his sensitive and bad boy modes. Between the toothless programming and the out-of-place rap features (which are apparently cringe-y even to some folks who are actual fans of Kendrick Lamar, A$AP Rocky, etc.), this might just be the most awful thing I’ve heard all year. Even when the band shows some inkling of actually coloring outside the lines of the meme-dominated modern pop landscape’s expectations, we get the tedious 11-minute vamp “Closure”, which is basically a staring match with anyone brave enough to actually listen all the way through to the end of the album’s standard edition. I’m done with these guys. I don’t even think I’ll have the courage to listen to these guys out of morbid curiosity after this.

Christine Denté – Closer to Free EP
This is a brief little batch of new songs – 5 tracks and a scant fifteen minutes – from a longtime favorite vocalist of mine, best known as the fairer half of Out of the Grey. At this point I’m slightly confused as to what constitutes a solo record by Christine vs. what constitutes an Out of the Grey record – I can only assume it depends on her husband Scott’s level of involvement. This one was actually produced by the couple’s son Julian, and it’s a good mix of smart indie pop and the classic, glossy, slightly experimental Out of the Grey sound, just more based around keyboards than guitars for obvious reasons. In many ways, it feels like more of a return to form than A Little Light Left did. Hearing her voice again always feels like a welcome visit from one of my oldest friends, so I’m sure I’ll continue to appreciate new music from Christine in pretty much any capacity.

Obsessive Year-End List Fest 2016: Favorite Albums (and Honorable Mentions)

This is the music I’ll remember the most when I think back on 2016. Not just the great singles (though these albums have plenty of those) or the dark horse picks buried deep in the track listings (tons of those too, though), but the way these records all flow from song to song, creating a continuous listening experience that makes spending nearly an hour of time with each artist (or more, in a few cases) worthwhile. On my most cynical days, I’d say that thanks to both terrestrial radio doing its thing and the ephemeral lifecycle of most songs and artists that go “viral” on social media, the single is a much more easily digestible and obtainable format for popular music nowadays, putting the album in danger of becoming a lost art. But from the very obscure to the decidedly mainstream, every record on this list would be here to prove me wrong.

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Obsessive Year-End List Fest 2016: Favorite Songs

The final days of 2016 are upon us, and that can only mean one thing – it’s time for some long lists that try (perhaps in vain) to sum up the best music I was listening to this year. As always, I’ll start with the individual songs that stood out to me the most. The in-depth reasons why I love these songs so much are mostly spelled out in the album reviews I’ve linked to from here, but in addition to the usual video evidence, I’ve also included a quick blurb for each of the Top 30 entries, just to keep it from being a long list with no explanation whatsoever, I guess.

I’ve also made a Spotify playlist that collects a lot of these highlights, if you’d like to spend a few hours following along. (That one’s ordered more as I discovered the songs, not so much how I’d rank them now, and it’s limited to one track per artist.)

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Green Day – Revolution Radio: I put the “riot” in patriot.

2016_greenday_revolutionradioArtist: Green Day
Album: Revolution Radio
Year: 2016
Grade: B

In Brief: While it’s not as ambitious as American Idiot or 21st Century Breakdown, I appreciate the return to writing songs in that vein, and the result is a far more listenable record than their 2012 trilogy. While the subject matter is a mixed bag, I’m finding most of the songs to be quite cathartic in the midst of a post-election malaise.

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What Am I Listening To? – October 2016

2016_boniver_22amillionBon Iver – 22, A Million
Justin Vernon’s no longer obsessed with random places on maps. He’s obsessed with numbers now. Oh, and Autotune. Layers and layers of Autotune, to the point where I really have to question the limits to which that particular tool can be stretched. I get that it’s an artsy effect, not an attempt to correct mistakes. If anything, he seems fascinated with the imperfections that occur when the sound of his voice is warped beyond recognition. It’s amusing in small doses, but grating in larger ones. I can’t fault him for going full experimental with his previous baroque pop/folk sound, but several of these new songs feel like non-events as a result of it. This album’s an intentional mess, and getting a lot of praise for it, but to me it’s just OK.

2016_gungor_onewildlifebodyGungor – One Wild Life: Body
The final chapter of the One Wild Life saga has an intriguing concept behind it – following the thoughts and instincts of a person from life to death, and dealing with the various emotions, desires, and needs they have along the way. At this point I think I’m more excited by the high-concept ideas Gungor shoots for than the actual music – though this album seems a little more consistent than the last two in terms of its pacing (being generally more uptempo certainly helps, despite the purposefully slow beginning and end). I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit burned out on their occasional habit of sabotaging a good hook just to make a song sound more artsy-fartsy than it really needs to be. And the way the trilogy finally wraps up, while it’s a nice bookend to the way Soul started out, it a bit anti-climactic. Sometimes I think Michael and Lisa second-guess themselves to ridiculous extremes, but then I’m glad to have a Christian artist who is willing to think outside the box instead of recording rote worship songs over and over. Body isn’t perfect, but it might be the most consistent and fully realized of the three One Wild Life albums when all is said and done.

2016_trailsandways_ownitTrails and Ways – Own It
I should probably know by now that when I fall in love with a band due to the beautiful synergy shown by several equally important members, and especially, it seems, when their music is dependent on multiple vocalists to make the track listing diverse and the harmonies really soar, that band is in a precarious spot when key members choose to move on. Trails and Ways lost both of their female members between albums, and in addition to the loss of rich backing vocals, those two members were also their bassist and lead guitarist. They’ve been replaced by temporary touring members here, as far as I can tell, with the two guys being the only permanent members of the group remaining, and that reduces what was once a unique and diverse sound to a bit of a monotonous take on modern-day indie pop. The songwriting’s still intriguing, but the vocals just don’t pop like they used to, and the bits of foreign language that used to give so many of their songs character are gone, too. There are a few genuinely catchy songs in the mix, but most of this album runs together in my mind, and it feels like a rushed attempt to deliver a follow-up when some time to hang back and reinvent the band in more of a carefully planned way probably would have been a better approach.

2016_greenday_revolutionradioGreen Day – Revolution Radio
Wooing back their old-school pop-punk fans with their trilogy of albums released in 2012 kinda backfired, so it seems Green Day is back to making the sorts of politicized rock operas that gave them a second career with American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown. This album doesn’t quite have the teeth or the sonic variation that those records did, but I still see it as a welcome course correction for the band. The songs are pretty sturdy, aside from one or two misfires, the commentary on violence and the media’s relationship with it are timely, even if the political approach seems old hat for Green Day at this point, and I like the little thematic nods that bring “Somewhere Now” (easily my favorite of the 12 new songs) full circle at the end of the epic rocker “Forever Now”. Nothing here breaks new ground for Green Day, but at least they’re well-aware of their strengths and generally playing to them.

2016_mutemath_changesMuteMath – Changes
A MuteMath remix album sounds like a really good idea on paper. They’re already well-known as a killer live band with a hefty dose of computerized sounds to sweeten the pot, so going full electronica doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch. And they’ve got friends in all the right places when it comes to potential remixers. Unfortunately, as with most remix albums, a lot of these tracks are borderline tedious, dragging down the tempos or repeating sections of well-loved songs from Vitals to the point where it becomes grating, not really improving on any of the source material. Getting through this thing was a real chore, despite (or perhaps because of) my positive feelings about the original versions. (Also: Why do we need two versions of “Monument”, but they couldn’t be bothered to remix “Bulletproof”? Grrr.) Adding female vocals to the title track “Vitals” was a good call, and I do really enjoy the brand-new song “Changes”, which fits alongside the remixes sonically, but doesn’t make the mistake of mucking up something I previously enjoyed, and doesn’t let its weird sonic detours get in the way of actual song structure. This feels like a “Keep our merch on the shelves after our last album didn’t sell so well” type of project, sadly.

2016_reginaspektor_rememberustolifeRegina Spektor – Remember Us to Life
Regina Spektor seems to be known first and foremost for her quirkiness, but there’s some real substance beneath the cutesiness. She’s a very thoughtful songwriter, and sometimes the musical roulette game she plays doesn’t show that off as well as it could in the form of a full-length album. This new one seems to shore up some of the pacing problems her last few had, and I feel like both the ideas behind each song and the actual execution work for me more often than they used. If I’m honest with myself, I’m more drawn to the sinister and sassy up-tempo tracks than the quieter ballads, but this record’s got a fair amount of both to digest. Definitely one I’ll be coming back to a lot in the closing months of 2016.

2016_alterbridge_thelastheroAlter Bridge – The Last Hero
My weariness with a band’s overall sound getting repetitive, and my tendency to tune out partway through an album, have come back with a vengeance here. Green Day got off easy. Alter Bridge seems to be so hell-bent on proving they can rock hard for the duration of an album that it just plain gets tiring to listen to. And this sucker is over an hour long! Yikes. I love that they’re still willing to merge alt-rock, grunge, and old-school metal techniques in a day and age where none of those things are trendy. But their better records, particularly Blackbird, had some amount of calm before the storm, maybe a few poppier or more acoustic tracks (sacrilege, I know) to make the onslaught hit harder when they would dive back into heavier material. The social commentary seems to get cornier and cornier as the years go by, too – they’re tiptoeing into Dream Theater territory at this point, and that’s not the way in which I’d want a band to be like Dream Theater.

2016_sleepingatlast_atlasemotionsSleeping at Last – Atlas: Emotions
You’d almost expect this to be Inside Out: The Song Cycle, except for the absence of Disgust, I guess. And Ryan O’Neal is certainly a huge fan of the film, and all things Pixar. But here, the core emotions of Joy, Sorrow, Anger and Fear that he explores don’t so much aim to express those emotions directly through the music as they do to describe the psychological impact on each of them as we learn to define the world around us based on our experiences. Ryan’s delicate voice and generally bright instrumental palette make it especially tricky for him to fully capture Anger and Fear, especially with the latter being an instrumental (which contains some surprising sonic twists compared to his usual work, though nothing overtly terrifying), but as always, reading the stories behind the songs makes his approach a lot easier to understand, and the more up-tempo/aggressive approach of both Joy and Anger helps to ensure that those in particular will probably find their way into my pantheon of favorite SAL songs.

The Best of the Ought Nots, Part III: 41-60

We’ve reached the midpoint of my personal hit list now – at some point in the 40’s is where we cross the threshold from the material bubbling just under the “5 star” barrier, to the material that I feel fully earned the highest marks in each glowing review that I wrote. The higher up we go, the more unbridled my joy in going back and revisiting the great music that the 2000’s had to offer.
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