Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine – A Beginner’s Mind: You Give Schlocky Movies a Good Name.

Artist: Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine
Album: A Beginner’s Mind
Year: 2021
Grade: B+

In Brief: This is quite an unexpected return to the hushed, lovely, and sometimes haunting indie folk style that made a lot of folks fall in love with Sufjan in the first place. It’s a surprising outcome for a collaborative project where the inspiration came from the two men being holed up in a cabin watching scary, sappy, and/or vintage movies.

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What Am I Listening To? – May 2021

Here are my thoughts on the latest from Manchester Orchestra, The Polyphonic Spree, New Canyons, Sufjan Stevens, Holden Days, Myles Kennedy, Iceage, Sarah Jarosz, Annie Moses Band, St. Vincent, Lord Huron, and Future of Forestry.

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The Best of the Ought Nots Revisited, Part V: 1-20

The top albums on my decade-end list from back in 2010 were pretty darn stubborn, most of ’em still amaze me to this day, and as a consequence they haven’t moved around on the list too much. But there were some new contenders that gave ’em some fierce competition – including one album that landed in the Top 5, and that only didn’t make the cut last time around because I slept on it until midway through 2010! Silly me.

Before I complete the countdown, I wanted to play the “how hipster am I?” game by looking up how popular the artists on this list are on Spotify, and seeing who comes out in top and who is the most obscure. Since I’m going with monthly streams as measured in the present day, this obviously isn’t indicative of how popular these artists were back when these albums were new (and when Spotify had yet to come into existence), but it’s still interesting to see how many artists I was into who have had the staying power to still be enjoyed by millions of people, and even how some of the least-known ones have thousands (or in a few cases, mere hundreds) of people still streaming their music.

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Obsessive Year-End List Fest 2020: Favorite Albums

Though I’m sure many of us are tempted to remember 2020 as something of a “wasted year”, I genuinely have to say that it had far more excellent music in store than I would have guessed. Given that most of my year was spent in my makeshift office at home, hunched over a laptop and sometimes not leaving the apartment for days at a time, I can only imagine how utterly unbearable it would have been without new music as an avenue for exploration. I probably racked up more Spotify streams this year than in any previous one, what with the extra time afforded by not commuting to and from work or running most of my usual errands. I feel like that led me to branch out and try new things a little more often than in a normal year, whereas much of my listening time in the car during a normal year is dedicated to music I already know I like. With that said, I do feel like I got outside and got that much-needed Vitamin D whole doing a healthy amount of activities such as hiking and enjoying local parks and scenic drives with my family (we even managed a few road trips, despite the logistical difficulties of minimizing human contact while traveling during a pandemic), and it was great to road-test a lot of 2020’s best records during some of those excursions, as a way of making sure my visual memories of them wouldn’t be tied to sitting in the same boring spot all year. Whether the music was dark and cathartic and moved me to more authentically express my sorrow and anger at the current situation, or it was lighthearted, imaginative, and full of hope for brighter days ahead, these are the records that did the most to help keep my morale up during a year when answers, hope, optimism, and faith in humanity were in extremely short supply.

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Sufjan Stevens – The Ascension: There’s too much music on that!

Artist: Sufjan Stevens
Album: The Ascension
Year: 2020
Grade: B

In Brief: The Ascension largely trades in Sufjan’s highly detailed style of storytelling for much broader themes, but it’s still a meticulously crafted and incredibly vulnerable record that once again pulls off an unexpected genre shift from his past work, this time to a glitchy electropop sound that is quite distinct from his past electronic projects. The problem – as with most Sufjan records – is that it’s way too damn long, and the repetition/rumination gets overbearing, to the point where listener fatigue detracts from the quality of tracks that might otherwise stand out as thought-provoking highlights.

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What Am I Listening To? – September 2020

A few of my longtime favorites dropped new releases this month – with one of them coming as a complete surprise! Here are my first impressions of the latest from Doves, Everything Everything, The Flaming Lips, Fleet Foxes, Sufjan Stevens, Sylvan Esso, Blitzen Trapper, The Gray Havens, and Will Butler.

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What Am I Listening To? – March 2020

To say that this month didn’t go as planned would be a massive understatement. At the beginning of the month, I was gearing up for a relaxing vacation in Hawaii, which is where I figured I’d be when writing this column. Then the Coronavirus happened – or rather, America finally got serious about defending itself against it, and most of us went into a prolonged period of self-isolation. The upside is that I’ve had even more time than usual to binge on music while working from home (and I’m fortunate to have a job that lends itself well to telecommuting). The downside is that, try as I might to be objective, some otherwise good music released during this season is going to be forever entwined with the memories of being stuck at home and praying to God that none of my family members or loved ones get sick. Maybe I’ll be able to turn that around and come out remembering some of this as the music that helped keep me company and lift my spirits during an intense and difficult part of my life? Only time will tell.

Here are my first impressions of the latest from Phantogram, SHEL, Alex Wong, Hayley Williams, Leigh Nash, Cindy Morgan, Holden Days, Collective Soul, Peter Bjorn and John, Mandy Moore, Matt Wertz, Jason Wade, Sufjan Stevens & Lowell Brams, Pearl Jam, Elbow, and Sleeping at Last.

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Obsessive Year-End List Fest 2019: Favorite Songs

2019 was a weird year for me, in terms of the music I enjoyed most. A lot of artists put out genuinely great singles, only to follow them up with lackluster albums, EPs as stopgaps between albums, or really nothing at all. It’s a good thing I was following all of my favorite artists on Spotify, as well as some newer ones I was curious to hear more from, or else I might have not heard a good quarter of this list until 2019, if ever. Usually the vast majority of my Top 100 songs for the year comes from my favorite albums released that year, with some spillover from the year before. While that’s still true in 2019, it’s worth noting that nearly a tenth of my list this time comes from EPs or compilations rather than albums, and close to another tenth of the list is made up of non-album singles, that have yet to be attached to a larger collection of songs (assuming that will ever happen at all). While this speaks to the ability of many of my favorite artists to strike while the iron is hot in terms of getting new music out, it also worries me slightly where the longevity of the album format is concerned. But that’s an issue to discuss when I get to my list of Favorite Albums for the year. My Favorite Songs list, while eclectic and probably whiplash-inducing at certain points, definitely required some tough decision-making because there were so many great songs that spoke to me this year. At the end of the day, whether a song is part of a larger narrative or not, that’s really all that matters – whether the song stands out to me as unique in some way, and makes me want to keep coming back to listen to it over and over again. And everything on this list passed that test with flying colors!

As I do each year, I’ll give some insight into my reasons for picking the Top 30, and you can assume after that point that the ordering is somewhat arbitrary. Many of these songs (limit one per artist) are collected in my 2019 in a Nutshell playlist over on Spotify.

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Obsessive Year-End List Fest 2018: Favorite Songs

First on my to-do list as the year comes to a close is to list the individual songs that inspired and entertained me the most in 2018. Some of these may have come out in 2017, or in a few extreme cases, as singles in 2016 that didn’t make it onto an actual album release until more recently. Either way, it was all new to me this year, or else I heard it in late 2017 and I had a belated reaction to it. Explanations and video/audio links are given for the Top 30 – for the rest, if you’re curious, just click the review links where provided to learn more.

As always, many of these songs (limit one per artist) are collected in my 2018 in a Nutshell playlist over on Spotify.

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