My Top 10 Albums of 2017

December 8, 2017

It’s that time of year again. I’m still working on those “best horror ever” posts but in the meantime here is my first “best of 2017” posts. These were my 10 favorite albums of the year with a few honorable mentions to boot.


10) Sanhet: So Numb

Instrumental rock music—particularly instrumental metal—can be tricky. It rarely warrants revisits. A guitar solo here or there, an extended breakdown between verses, but an entire album of harder edged rock sans vocals? Often it just becomes guitar aficionado  wankery. Even a guitarist as undeniably awesome as Animals as Leader’s Tosin Abasi rarely makes an album worth listening to repeatably because while the talent (and riffs) are there the hooks often aren’t, the emotion is often subdued (or absent) so it just becomes a showcase of talent rather than a collection of songs. So I was pleasantly surprised by Sanhet’s latest offering So Numb which has quickly grown to become one of my favorite instrumental rock albums ever. These are real songs—songs that are fully formed and catchy, heavy and at times emotionally unsettling. They are songs that are not lacking for words—in fact, lyrics and vocals would likely diminish what is present here. There are riffs—but listeners aren’t bludgeoned with them and things are downright understated when they need to be. Post-metal influenced by black metal with whatever else you want to call it thrown in the bucket is here to command your attention (and repeat listens).



9) The War on Drugs: A Deeper Understanding

I always get a mid-career Bob Dylan early-career Peter Gabriel filtered through modern indie and synthwave vibe when I play The War on Drugs and I like it. A Deeper Understanding didn’t immediately grab me as much as 2014’s Lost in the Dream did but I’ve found myself listening to it over and over and each time the songs, layered as they are, grab me a bit deeper. It’s deceptively simple work on its surface that it really does require those repeat listens to unwrap. I enjoy these songs in different ways at different times—as soothing background music, as compelling driving music, as creative headphone music. Great lyrics, great vocals, great production.


8) Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: The Nashville Sound

I was sure this was my record of the year the week it came out. I love Isbell (just a touch shy of how much I love DBT who gave him his start) and his solo work since Southeastern has showcased him truly coming into his own as one of the absolute best songwriters of his generation (in any genre). But while almost every song on The Nashville Sound is a winner I ultimately found myself thinking it doesn’t quite flow together coherently as an album. It plays more like a collection of great singles. These songs are also a sidestep from the deeply intimate narratives like those on previous albums where he most shines at—these are like the songs he penned while a Trucker. I have to admit I do like that though as that’s when I first grew to love his work in the first place and it’s nice to hear him with a full band really ripping into the rock side of his repertoire. So while the album as a whole isn’t the best representation of Isbell as a crafter of classic albums most of the individual songs are so strong it still easily warrants a place on any serious end of year list. “Cumberland Gap” roars, “White Man’s World” is an excellent indictment and “If We Were Vampires” is so freaking sad I can hardly listen to it.


7) Jay Z: 4:44

4:44 seeks to do with hip hop what Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen did with rock via Wildflowers and Tunnel of Love (respectively) 20+ years ago—make a mature, adult record in a genre previously born of and made by (and for) the young. Hip Hop still hasn’t fully found a way to grow up—most of the time the veterans of the scene spend their later years trying to tap into what the youngsters are doing, relying on stories and themes they haven’t really been that close to for years. Jay Z has done away with that in shorter bursts before but not as fully (and as effectively) as he does here. This is him being honest, being himself where he is now as an adult, husband, father and entrepreneur. He owns up to his mistakes, seeks to explore his own vulnerability (not something hip hop has often done much of) and in the process makes one of his top 5 catalogue records (in a career full of classics).


6) Kreator: Gods of Violence

I freaking love Kreator even though I was late to the party discovering them, first hearing them in recent years where they play more groove than thrash metal. While I’ve since went back and explored the early fierce Teutonic thrash they made in the early to mid 1980s and love that stuff I’m still a bit partial to their post-2000 work when they cleaned up the production and added hook after hook to their heft. I unreservedly love Gods of Violence and probably listened to it more than any other metal record in 2017. “World War Now” may as well be the news these days. Also–there’s something endearing about a heavy pit number that thunders “side by side we’ll crush homophobia” (“Side by Side”). I was lucky enough to catch these German gods in concert for the Decibel tour and this album (along with all of the old classics) rips live.

spirit adrift

5) Spirit Adrift: Curse of Conception

I think there’s been a melodic doom metal record near the top of my year end list for the past few years now. Back in the spring I would’ve sworn it would be the always reliable Pallbearer who did so this year—but while I enjoyed Heartless and it’s deeper into prog rock territory trappings I felt the middle of the record dipped from what was excellent at both record beginning and end. Curse of Conception by Spririt Adrift, on the other hand, hits all the right notes as far as I’m concerned and doesn’t let down in the slightest on any track. Spirit Adrift don’t venture into the prog like Pallbearer did this year, they instead inject classic heavy metal into their doom. This is well (and clear, undistorted) sung, well played, slower paced (but energetic) heavy metal.


4) Joey Bada$$: All-AmeriKKKan Bada$$

For several months the latest from Joey Bada$$ set at the top of the list as my favorite record of 2017. I was really loving it when Kendrick’s came out and initially didn’t like Damn half as much as All-AmeriKKKan Bada$$. The focus and subject matter at hand on Joey’s LP is by far the more immediate of the two (and I have to admit hearing a rapper scream “F*** Donald Trump” as Joey and others have this year is appealing) but ultimately Damn got under my skin with repeat listens and edged just past Joey by a hair. Regardless, this is a damn fine hip hop album full of great songs. Joey carries it all by himself but the guest spots are worthwhile as well, particularly Schoolboy Q who is always good to hear. This is impressive and serious work for a still fairly young MC so I’m excited to hear what he does next.


3) Kendrick Lamar: Damn

On first listen I wasn’t sold on Kendrick’s latest. The concept, delivery and instant appeal of his previous album To Pimp a Butterfly (especially it’s flirtation with jazz) just wasn’t there for me on the first few spins of Damn. However, I kept coming back to individual songs and ultimately the album as a whole. The production is less genre boundary pushing than last album around but what he gives up on in terms of sonic variety he makes up for with honed-in expertly produced hip hop that (to my ears at least) convincingly merges classic old-school hip hop with the best of what’s being made in the genre today. Damn succeeds for me largely on those beats but the wizardry and left of center almost idiosyncratic rhymes send it over the top. There’s still a concept as usual though one less easy to follow for those unfamiliar with the religious sect he’s profiling subtly here (or who don’t do some internet research to find out what’s going on) but what’s most important this time around is perhaps what’s most important for hip hop in general: beats and rhymes.


2) Tori Amos: Native Invader

 This album has grown and grown on me over the past few months. Ultimately I love this record because not only is it Tori’s best work in a decade or more (arguably since 2001’s Scarlett’s Walk) but my enjoyment of it connected that earlier work with all that came later—opening up for me just how consistent yet boldly original everything Amos has done as a songwriter and performer her entire career truly is. Finally catching her in concert this year didn’t hurt either but enough of that—how does this album alone and in full stand separated from the rest of that? Very well. It’s timely without being beholden to anyone else’s work for its sound, classically Tori without repeating any of her old tricks, and political without overt references that will instantly date it. Most importantly, it’s full of good songs filled with great lyrics, nice harmonies, and great instrumentation. With Native Invader Tori establishes herself fully as a “legacy” artist who isn’t dependent on her earlier work to remain relevant.


1) Grave Pleasures

 Ultimately I can’t think of a better musical accompaniment to and future artifact of 2017 than Motherblood. Nostalgia is all the rage right now, particularly 1980s nostalgia (Stranger Things, It, synth pop, Hollywood remakes etc.). Also, the fear that everything’s doomed and about to explode currently flows pretty freely. So what better to soundtrack both than death-rock that mines left of the dial college art rock, punk, and pop from the eighties as hymns to the most destructive side of Kali? Grave Pleasures consists of former members of Beastmilk, The Oath, In Solitude and Oranssi Pazuzu and you catch a glimpse of each of those bands in this stew. If you want your Doom Metal more bouncy, your pop darker, your rock with a suggestion to strap on a gas mask for the coming apocalypse then Grave Pleasures is for you. All of the above is doubled if you like super catchy choruses and dark earworms that pacify you for the coming collision.


Honorable Mentions:

A lot of albums came really close to the top 10, probably none closer than Near to the Wild Heart of Life by Japandroids. I probably listened to the songs on that more than anything here so it’s almost unfair it didn’t make the cut–they walk the line between cheesy and earnest better than anyone making music today, coming out on the right side of that tricky balance to produce anthemic fist-pumping garage rock tunes that sound like 4 minute bro-hugs. Craig Finn‘s latest solo album also came close (We All Want the Same Things). He’s been one of my favorite song-writers for years and I think he’s only gotten better with lyrics post-Hold Steady. The National made more excellent sadcore hipster guy music with The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness but while almost great it didn’t quite live up to their last few records. I really loved the Lydia Loveless Desire/Sorry singles (who would’ve thought she could give that much life to a Justin Bieber song?) and am ready for another new full-length from her. Possibly my favorite song of the year was “The Doomed” by A Perfect Circle and the two songs they auditioned during their latest tour were also solid so I have hopes a new record (2018?) from them will be good. Like every year for the past several I listened to a ton of metal and could easily recommend plenty of those (notably this year Iron Reagan: Crossover Ministry, Steve Tucker’s reunion with Morbid Angel: Kingdoms of Disdain, Immolation: Atonement, Power Trip: Nightmare Logic, Wolves in the Throne Room: Thrice Woven, Myrkur: Mareidt, King Woman: Utopia and much more. Really in terms of hip hop the only three albums I really liked or listened to much made the cut above–it’s gotten for me with that genre that most of what comes out I don’t care much for but what I do like I like very much.



tom petty

The first time I spent my own money to buy music was in the 5th grade when I used my allowance to buy two Tom Petty cassettes from a classmate—Wildflowers and the first Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Greatest Hits compilation. To this day those remain two of my favorite albums. Wildflowers is a masterpiece but one that went largely over my head back then. I dug the melodies but the words were more mature than I was at the time. It, challenged only by maybe Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love may be the best adult rock record of all time in its straightforward handling of issues facing us as we age out of rock’s original target audience. However, back then I played that Greatest Hits tape over and over and I contend to this day it’s the best greatest hits album ever assembled. It’s just perfect–one great song after another and it flows together cohesively like an album all its own. To top it off he was able to stick one of his biggest hits on it before it was even a hit as “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” was a new song recorded for the compilation.

There’s a timelessness to the music of Tom Petty. There’s also a remarkable consistency. I remember off-handedly saying to my wife a few years ago that Petty should “lead a class for other musicians on how to not suck”. Because seriously—scan through his body of work and find something bad–it’s a pretty difficult task. Sure some songs or albums are better than others but there’s no huge embarrassment or clunker in his catalogue. Some might see that as a sign of not pushing boundaries, of not being “experimental” enough. Whatever. He encompassed so much scope so simply which is why I think so many people are saddened over his untimely demise. Punks, rock and roll purists, country music fans, top 40 listeners—there’s something for all of those people in Tom Petty’s songs.

Tom Petty gave songs the strictest of focus. Sure his work could be “political” (as in The Last DJ or “Shadow People” from Hypnotic Eye) but never at the expense of the song. Sure he could be writing some seriously heartfelt introspection—but never in a banal navel-gazing way. The songs always had to work as songs. They are unpretentious songs.

It’s just a bummer to have him gone now, talk about bad news on top of bad news. I know as a fan I can never mourn an artist like their family and friends do as I didn’t know him for who he really was. I know him as he presented himself to me in song, how he came across in witty profile pieces and interview after interview, how he appeared in Bogdonovich’s Running Down a Dream film and perhaps as intimately as an outsider possibly could know him from reading the masterful biography his fan and friend Warren Zanes wrote. I know people who are genuinely heartbroken over the loss of this man and it’s easy to see why. I wrote one of these pieces about Prince not too long ago. We’re losing too many of the last masters of pure rock music: Neil Young, Van Morrison, the remaining Beatles and Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen are about all that’s left. More than any of them (except arguably Springsteen) Tom was unique in that he was still making vital new work as Hypnotic Eye and the Mudcrutch LPs were as good as anything he’d ever done. It’s a shame we won’t get to hear what he had in store for us over the next 20 years because I know his creativity would have held out as long as he did.

So be thankful you have a vast catalogue of Tom Petty, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Mudcrutch & Traveling Wilburys records to listen to, over and over. Be thankful an artist as authentic and honest as Petty devoted his life to making the best music he could and that he came along in a time and place where he was able to develop and share that talent. And the next time your musical hero comes to town to play a show make sure to go if you have the chance because it’s never a given you’ll get that opportunity again.

Last week one of those viral Facebook status games went around. You know the ones—“I’ve been to X states how many have you?” with shaded areas or a Q&A of which sibling or spouse in your family is considered the more Y than the others, etc. This one going around was “I’ve been to 9 of the following 10 concerts—which is fake?” I’m usually not one for these games or copy-paste status shares but this caught my eye because I love music and frequent concerts. I love ranking, debating, and sharing music information as well. It was fun to learn what friends had seen what shows—that a Jehovah’s Witness mother of two friend of mine I’d never heard so much as cuss had seen Master P as a teen or that I had friends who’d caught both Kurt Cobain and Eliot Smith live before their suicides was interesting to me.

I realized when receiving notifications of comments on either mine or a friend’s status that I’d guessed at that for the first time in months (or longer) I actually enjoyed something on Facebook. I’ve been as guilty as others in the news-shares that only preach to the choir or piss off the other side but never change minds and rarely inspire actual action and I do like that news stories I trust and find worth my time populate in my feed on the regular but since the build up to the 2016 election and the fallout afterward I’ve felt little joy in reading or interacting with anything on Facebook. This was different and small as it was I enjoyed it.

Then almost instantly I began seeing backlash and realized just like I’ve always suspected, there can be no joy on most of the internet least of all Facebook. “Ugh I hate concerts who cares?” status updates or “thanks for reminding me I’ve never seen anything” or ultimately worst of all, comments that “these updates just showcase how privileged some people are that they can waste their time and money on such trivialities”—I’m paraphrasing and combining several comments and conversations into one with that but it’s a pretty apt summary of what I saw in one corner of the newsfeed. That’s just indicative of the need to –ism and box every activity and action, to privilege check all that shouldn’t be privilege checked and ultimately to force us all to realize:

I love live music. I love music in general and love albums but I especially love the live concert experience. It’s all encompassing and it purges my mind of the clouds and cobwebs and self-doubt and cynicism. I went to a couple of shows a year from my late teens through my early twenties then a buddy and I spent two years of college hitting the road every time anywhere in a 6 hour radius a band either of us loved was playing. After graduation I caught shows sporadically but three years ago my wife and I moved to the Nashville area. While I’m no real (mainstream) country music fan, I quickly realized Nashville was beginning to draw more and more diverse acts. As someone who loves metal as well I was pleasantly surprised to see death, black, doom, trad and other metal acts from acclaimed upstart acts to historical legacy acts coming to the area. Though I’m approaching my mid-thirties at this point since I came to my full love of extreme metal rather later in life I took advantage of a somewhat flexible work schedule to hit as many of these shows, most of which could be enjoyed for less than $30, as possible—well, at least one a month.

I have no children. My wife and I trust each other to do things without the other when we want. We’ve slowly dug our way of debt (still a way to go) but the last 3 years are the first time in our lives one or both of us hasn’t been in some sort of school or degree program and it’s the first time we’ve both had something at least approximating a real career. So if I want to spend $30 or less on a show—then throw $50 if I feel like it on drinks and merch to support the hard-touring acts—on a Tuesday night in a warehouse or damp basement show or heck $75 occasionally for a legacy act in an arena then I don’t know whose business it is but my own. As for privilege? I have waited in so many lines for concerts and I see hard-working 20-50 year old folks, some obviously there straight from work with a schedule on deck for the next AM waiting in line to hear a song they love by a band they admire. I see folks who maybe want to have a drink and wait for the lights to go down and the spectacle to begin. To forget whoever is in office and whatever is owed, whatever has not worked out for them and just breathe for a few hours.

I remember those maps of “I’ve been to X states” and remember feeling bummed that I’d been nowhere outside of the southern geographic radius of states right into my 30s. I am only now at a point at which I can afford to really travel at least once a year. Sporting events? Outside of an occasional minor league baseball game I have no interest in spending my money and time at one. So do what you like in life when you have the opportunity because experiences are almost always worth it. I have fond memories of every show I’ve been to and they always yield stories to tell to like-minded fans. This year two of my best memories so far are a 4-act metal tour where I bounced around (often flying through the air) in a sweaty mosh pit for 5 hours and a small dark club where a gothic folk singer sang the words of songs I’d played on repeat for months to chilling effect. I’m not really a religious person (though I once was) but the right live show functions in the way the best religious service can—it builds an instant community, involves the whole body, and overwhelms all of the senses. It clears the mind.

So yeah, if you like live music just make the effort. There’s probably a city or town within an hour of you that will have at least 1 good show a month—catch one some time and if you like it, let the band know by buying a shirt or two. If you don’t like live music? Find something else to do with your time but don’t be annoying.

Lastly, I was thinking about how at least Yelp and Goodreads, as far as social media goes, function optimally by keeping the focus on the subject(s) at hand. Then I received a random message on Yelp yesterday from a stranger calling me names because I mentioned in a review I preferred omelets to scrambled eggs: No.Joy.



My Top Albums of 2016

December 10, 2016





634934910) Jayhawks: Paging Mr. Proust

The Jayhawks have long since moved on from the bulk of the original twang present in their alt-country beginnings to a more 1970s radio aesthetic which really kind of suits them even better. Rainy Day Music was one of the downright prettiest albums of the ’00s and Paging Mr. Proust almost matched that this year. Mark Olsen’s vocals are just so gorgeous and the soft (but not weak) rock that supports those vocals is full of melody and melancholy. Put on “Isabel’s Daughter” or “Pretty Roses in Your Hair” and you’ll think you’re living in an alternate ideal version of 40 years ago.


9) Cobalt: Slow Forever

I know the fans loved Gin and with the loss of the two-piece’s original singer most probably didn’t hold much hope for a follow-up album. Yet as raw and talented a vocalist as Wunder was, Cobalt is really drummer Phil McSorley’s band and project. This may be one of the only bands this side of jazz this truly drumcentric. The drums create the thunder and rhythm that propels this warbeast forward, intense and at times overwhelming. However, new vocalist Charlie Fell of Lord Mantis fame perfectly fits right in with an intensity fans of his previous work knew he could match. They work together excellently here (and live). Slow Forever adds swaths of blues, bayou, goth and folk to the black metal stew and in that finds a hauntingly unique sound. The ghost of Ernest Hemingway is present once more as he’s the spiritual father of Cobalt in the “Iconoclast” intro to the title track near the end of the record. Cobalt toured with excellent German upstart two-piece Mantar (whose Ode to the Flame this year was also fantastic) showcasing the power of the drum.


8) Leonard Cohen: You Wanted Darker

Did we Leonard? Did we want darker? If so you certainly delivered. The opening title track might contain Cohen’s darkest imagery to date and that’s quite a feat for a cynic (or an optimist masked as a cynic) like Mr. Cohen. “Treaty” follows up without dialing it back. While listening to this record when it first came out I (like most others) had no idea we would soon lose Cohen. This album seems to be his making peace with death but as always he finds beauty in the darkness and hope in the hopelessness. Recorded minimally in his own home as he was dying he nevertheless sounds strong and timeless. The only other album to come close to this in stark desperation is Nick Cave‘s Skeleton Tree which somehow managed to find great music in the artist’s struggle to deal with the death of his teen son.


7) Lydia Loveless: Real

They may market her as “Americana” which really nowadays just means “country that doesn’t suck” as mainstream Nashville continues to disintegrate culturally and musically (a long slow death that bro-country just put the cherry on) but Lydia Loveless is really just great damn country music, to me so good that she reminds you the genre is worthy of attention. Real is a perfect title for this album because that’s what she gives you-realness. Real stories, real emotions, real hope, real desperation, real feelings produced by honest lyrics, honest vocals and warm welcoming music.”Out on Love” was easily one of my most played songs this year.



6) Subrosa: For This We Fought the Battle of Ages

Subrosa have been making captivating and unique music for years now and their latest record is their most creative yet. Musically they continue to mix doom metal, classic rock, classical, chamber, and indie to create complex, layered long-form songs (or movements). Lyrically this time around they use a (to most American readers) rather obscure Russian dystopian sci-fi novel from the 1920s as a jumping off point for songs of a near and all to close future of state suppression and loss of identity. Rebecca Vernon’s vocals sound stronger and more emotional than ever and violinists Sarah Pendelton and Kim Pack give listeners chills. Some of the best lyrics committed to music of any genre this year were on this record, phrases and codas that simply demand to be heard and felt.


5) Anthrax: For All Kings

2016 was a year in which veterans of Thrash Metal decided to do their best work since their prime. Megadeth has been notoriously incapable of making a great record in a long time yet in February they released, to the surprise of everyone, their strongest work in more than two decades with Dystopia. Though it doesn’t reach the peaks of their classic 80s work (Rust in Peace) it was arguably as fun as their last great record (Countdown to Extinction).  Then near the end of the year, Metallica went and released their strongest record in more than 20 years as well with Hard Wired to Self-Destruct. Testament, though never considered in the “big 4” has actually been more consistent than any of them and kept their train rolling with Brotherhood of the Snake. Yet none of the above matched up to Anthrax’s For All Kings. which may very well be their best record EVER not just since their prime. The songs, riffs, vocals, drums, production and everything here is better consistently than anything they’ve ever committed to record. Anthrax has always been better live than on record (and if you got to see them on tour for this record you saw they haven’t lost it) but this time they matched the quality of those live performances on record. Anthrax in many ways are unique among their thrash peers and descendants in that (with vocalist Joey Belladonna) their vocals are closer to older pure “heavy metal” with soaring highs and melodic lows (no growls, barks or grunts to be found) and their lyrics are generally upbeat, positive and fun…heck even that “pentagram” on the cover and their merch is actually and “A” for “Anthrax” logo. Though a tad on the long side this record is a blast front to back with a fun joyful energy that is welcome even to the dourest of metalheads particularly in the pit. Who else can make calling out religious extremism and terrorism sound fun?




4) A Tribe Called Quest: We Got it from Here Thank You 4 Your Service:

Wow we had De La Soul return this year AND a final album from Tribe? Other than those two it was a rather sparse year for hip hop (IMO) other than a few solid entries from DJ Khaled, Common and maybe Drake (though a last minute drop from J.Cole I’ve yet to digest is likely worth some time too).  Anyway, Tribe was far in the lead of the pack for Hip Hop and “We Got It From Here” works as a tribute to their fallen Phife Dog and a state of the nation address. Even with the politics and the weight of their fallen member there is an unmitigated joy to be found on here reminding us how much fun hip hop can be. The production on these tracks showcases the best use of samples, original beats and instrumentation combinations to be found in classic or modern rap music.



3) Khemmis: Hunted

Doom Metal is often inaccessible to casual listeners–what with the extra long songs, repetitive riffs and often harsh vocals most of the modern classics of the subgenre are loved only by diehards. Pallbearer broke that mold a little bit over the past few years by finding a way to inject heavy doses of melody and outright beauty into the formula without sacrificing the heavy and Khemmis traverses that same path. Khemmis’ debut album Antediluvian just dropped last year and it was more than solid–yet here they are to immediately follow it up with an even stronger work. Hunted has fewer but longer songs than its predecessor and even more melody (clean vocals make up 85% or so of the singing) but the riffs are heavier, more intricate and catchier than ever. The lyrics are great too, and even the longest of songs here never meanders or even feels its length, nary a wasted or superfluous note to be found and that’s saying something for work this weighty. If you like what you hear on Spotify or whatnot, head over to 20BuckSpin and order this one on vinyl or CD as the packaging and booklet, artwork, etc. seems to add another level.


2) Drive By Truckers: American Band

If not for Beyonce this would have been my pick of the year. I mean, DBT have long been my favorite modern band and this is the best album they’ve made in a decade. This is their most timely, topical, and mature work yet and each song catalogues the state of the world today in assured but often subtle and complex ways. Not to mention that it rocks, the band sounds tighter and more focused than ever. DBT mixes the classic sounds of Exile era Stones, original (and hippy) line-up Skynard, bar band era Springsteen and witty, turn of phrase lyrics that evoke classic Dylan and nineties college rock. “Ramon Casiano” is an excellent opener and one of Cooley’s best ever, Hood’s “What It Means” eulogy for Trevon Martin and other black victims of gun violence, the sly repudiation of those who defend the confederate flag “Surrender Under Protest” and the immigrant history of “Ever South” stretch the focus of DBT’s keen eye for detail to the entire nation. A truly great and new statement across the board from one of America’s finest touring and recording bands working right now.


beyonce_-_lemonade_official_album_cover1) Beyonce: Lemonade

I know I sound like a copycat to say it but Lemonade was my favorite record of 2016 by far. So many others are saying the same thing so one would be forgiven for thinking it’s some sort of critical contagion, an opinion spreading that takes over or whatever. All I know is that I’ve been a Beyonce fan her entire career and while she’s had many great songs she’s never had a great full album…until now. I knew from the first time I heard these tracks last summer this would be my pick of the year barring an unforeseen upset and here we are at the end of the year and only one other album has even come close (see above). I’ll also disclose this–I haven’t seen the videos. I know this is a video album and I’m sure that adds an entire other level to the experience but I simply haven’t yet. I’ll likely purchase a 2 disc copy at some point to get those but just judging the songs as they are I’m confident in declaring this my winner. Each song works on its own and as part of a stellar overall whole. The crossover layers of genre, nods to outside art, the detailed inner journey of the artist–the production, the guest spots, the lyrics, everything works completely. There’s not a wasted or skippable moment to be found and declaring THE best moment is even difficult as I found “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, “Daddy Lessons” and “Freedom” to each be equally fantastic…but then again everything surrounding those few highlights is top-notch as well. Who’d have thought it? A true album-lovers album delivered in 2016 by a world-famous popstar released initially through a niche streaming service and accompanied by HBO videos.

Honorable Mentions:


AMSG-Hostis Universi Generis/Gevurah-Hallelujah/Myrkur-Masoleum/Inquisition-Bloodshed Across the Empyrean Altar Beyond the Celestial Zenith

Black Metal has always been the most controversial, least accessible and most aggressive subgenre of them all and while it moves into its third decade or so of existence many may argue (as they did with punk) it is no longer “really” black metal if it’s being made today particularly in North America. Whatever. It is true that it has moved away from it’s original birthplace and pretensions in many ways. The last few years have found black metal to be experimental, complex and diverse in a multitude of ways from the identities of its performers to their philosophical leanings and instruments. This year Chilean to US transplants Inquisition made their best record yet; female multi-instrumentalist Myrkur stripped songs from last year’s great M. album and added a few covers–recording them live in a mausoleum backed by a girl’s choir. Her hauntingly beautiful vocals sing the songs in her native Danish language and showcase black metal as high art. Two of the year’s best BM records came from Canada–Gevurah‘s esoteric and challenging Hallelujah and best of all AMSG’s disturbing, terrifying and captivating Hostis Universi Generis.

Other Notable Mentions: Experimental post-metal artists Neurosis made their most accessible yet uncompromising work yet with  Fire Within Fires, Veteran sludge metal band showcase riffs galore with Crowbar: The Serpent Only Lies, Meshuggah perfected their formula decades in with The Violent Sleep of Reason, Neko Case and pals Laura Veir and K.D. Lang showed everyone how to actually do a “supergroup” with Case/Lang/Veir, American R&B proved more exciting than hip hop for the year with, in addition to Beyonce, great new albums from Maxwell, Alicia Keys, and Frank Ocean and speaking of hip hop–I almost forgot Common’s Black America Again. I’m leaving a lot out as it was one of metal’s strongest underground years ever and there was even great new jazz to be found.


Best of 2015

December 21, 2015

*Note–I will likely be revising and editing this over the next two weeks but these are my top picks for albums, tv shows, movies and comics as of Dec 21, 2015.

Music  (in alphabetical order but bold are my top 10)

Beach House: Depression Cherry/ Count Your Lucky Stars                               Both records Beach House released this year, like 6 months apart, were great. I give a slight edge to Depression Cherry but likely just because I had a few other months to absorb it. The chillest yet captivating music you were apt to hear this year.

Ryan Adams: 1989

Gary Clark Jr. – The Story of Sonny Boy Slim


Craig Finn: Faith in the Future
I enjoyed but didn’t love Finn’s first solo record. This one I love. Short and sweet with some of the best lyrics he’s ever written–including Hold Steady–but a different style than his band, much more singer-songwriter.

Deerhunter: Fading Frontier

Drive By Truckers: It’s Great to be Alive (live box set)


Ghost: Melioria ; Lucifer – Lucifer I ; Christian Mistress – To Your Death

These three acts all in their own way brought back the best of ’70s era pre-metal/early metal traditions particularly the occult rock stains of it and made it sound fresh and new. Ghost has been at this bit awhile now and though they’re certainly not for everyone they have made their catchiest most accessible record yet with Meliroria particularly with lead single “Circe”–and who would have ever thought the band would perform on network cable as they did on Colbert’s late show for Halloween? Ghost are kind of the band fundamentalist pastors and parents thought Kiss were but actually weren’t. Ghost, with their anti-pope frontman and “clergy” band are all spectacle and tongue in cheek satanism but with undeniably catchy riffs, vocals and hooks. Lucifer on the other hand, Johanna Sadonis’ new band mines the feel of forgotten Sabbath records (particularly the excellent and underrated Technical Ecstasy), Blue Oyster Cult and a slew of female heavy “witch” rock to make a gem of an album. Christian Mistress, featuring Christine Davis’ excellent vocals and great riff after great riff edge closer to the NWOBHM scene that followed ’70s acts but bridge the gap between the two. All three records sound like classic heavy metal that fans from any metal era can appreciate.

Grave Pleasures: Dream Crash


Horrendous: Anareta

Horrendous are the best metal act on record right now. Three albums in each excellent and each better than the last. It’s solid OSDM that hits all the highlights of classic DM bands without retreading their ground–instead it mixes in experimental highs, hooks, riffs, atmosphere and an odd sense of joy. Lyrically they find peace in absurdity and I freaking love this album.

Iron Maiden: The Book of Souls


Jason Isbell: Something More Than Free
This one is tied neck and neck with Sufjan as my album of the year but while I may think Carrie and Lowell is the overall better record, I listened to this one quite a bit more. Isbell may be America’s best working songwriter today. “Children of Children” “24 Frames” and the title track were some of 2015’s best songs. Isbell seems to have found his own space and style in his post DBT career. I hate that those who are now flocking to Isbell aren’t by and large giving the Truckers catalog (other than maybe Jason’s songs therein) much of a go but I always felt Isbell was much more of an accessible artist than Hood though I prefer all things considered Hood and Cooley–I’d actually call them America’s best current songwriters but they don’t seem to have the reach and pop sensibility that Jason does.


Carly Rae Jespen: Em.ot.ion

Fine, it’s some seriously sugary bubblegum level pop music. Sorry. Carly Rae was my guilty pleasure jam this year and I’m feeling less guilty with each spin because it’s just so much fun. This is some synth style 80s mall pop  filtered by way of indie rock to today’s pop radio hits but better. Carly’s voice fits the earworm hooks so well and I hear M83 in those back-beats.

Talib Kweli: F*** the Money


Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly

They say for every hip hop fan there’s a shark waiting to be jumped–that eventually mainstream hip hop will leave every fan. I kind of thought this was my time and it may still be but though I enjoyed the heck out of Drake’s “If You’re Reading This…” it wasn’t great art (though it was above average pop). Kendrick’s latest work however is, divisive as it may be and as hipster embraced as it was. By far the best hip hop record of 2015 from one of today’s strongest rappers.

Lucero: Lucero (2015 S/T)


The Night Flight Orchestra: Skyline Whispers                                         Second only to perhaps Carlie Jae for just sheer fun, Night Flight Orchestra have been described as montage music–every song on the album could easily soundtrack an 80s movie montage. It’s fun, cheesy soaring “dad rock” without trying too hard or over reaching. This isn’t down and dirty Steel Panther style parody, this is much more subtle and unoffensive. Catchy tunes that rock in a throwback manner.

Myrkur: M

Nile: That Which Should Not Be Unearthed

Purity Ring: Another Eternity                                                                          Indie synth pop with a great hip hop undercurrent that actually works. Almost (almost) as catchy as Carly Rae.


Sufjan Stevens: Carrie and Lowell
This one was probably my favorite record of the year even if not my most listened to. It’s simply a bit heavy and sad to listen to on a daily or even weekly basis but it’s so beautiful. Sufjan’s love letter to his deceased mother in a warts-and-all biographical lyrical narrative is set to some of the most gorgeous arrangements of his impressive career.

Tribulation: Children of Night

Chelsea Wolfe: Abyss

Movies –
alphabetical again but with a disclaimer–I’m sure I’m forgetting some great films I’ve seen and I know that about 5-10 of those I have planned to watch over the next month or two (Star Wars, The Big Short, Bridge of Spies, Hail Caesar, Joy) will also deserve a space on this list.

Far From the Madding Crowd
Relatively simple period piece but so good.

It Follows   The best horror film I’ve seen in five years easily.

Spotlight  – So far my favorite film of the year Great cast, captivating and important story, good on every cinematic level.

Steve Jobs –
I really enjoyed this though I know some didn’t. It’s certainly warts and all and who knows how much liberty Sorkin took to weave his trademark snappy dialogue but it’s a great character piece.

Trainwreck  – Shumer is my favorite (perhaps second to Louis C.K.) working comedian and her team up with Apatow was awesome.

Trumbo –
Sadly this is still a timely tale if we just switched the terms out a bit. Cranston is terrific.



The Goldbergs



The Man in the High Castle

Jessica Jones

Master of None


Larry Wilmore Show

Daily Show

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert


Killing and Dying – Arienne Tomine

Stray Bullets: Sunshine and Roses

Southern Bastards

Harrow County

Ms. Marvel


The Fade Out





Have I really not written one of these since 2012? If I have, I don’t remember; but you can read the last one I remember doing by clicking here and from there you can link back to see all of them.

I only stumbled on this album recently. I first heard of this record reading Jessica Hopper’s wonderful “First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic” in which she includes an essay she published following Bazan and his break from faith when on tour with a Christian rock festival. I had heard some of Bazan’s work with his “Pedro the Lion” band years ago but none of it had ever really clicked with me as even then I wasn’t much for “Christian rock”. I did however notice how outside of the box  Bazan was in that he wasn’t the typical Christian rocker in terms of lyrical content or language.

“Curse Your Branches” was first released in 2009 and it is phenomenal and heartbreaking. It’s really a break-up album but not in the “divorce album” tradition–no, this a portrait of a man breaking up with God, or rather breaking up with his belief in God. Bazan spent his life in religious circles, presumably evangelical ones and faith was deeply ingrained in everything he did and was. It seems he married a devout like-minded Christain, was raising Christian children and performing in a Christian band when he had a crisis of faith and ultimately stopped believing in God. This in turn led to deep and excessive levels of drinking and deep soul-searching. “Curse Your Branches” is his Psalms. It is his struggle when the core of his identity is stripped bare. I don’t think the average person with a casual relationship with religion can understand the level of heartbreak that can manifest when one who lives, studies, practices and intertwines  religion into their very being and all of their everyday experiences suddenly finds that faith and religion stripped from them. Suddenly the very community they were a part of and the identity they thought they had is gone. The hopes they had for this life and the next are gone. What was home is no longer home. To really believe then to question then to not believe is more often painful than liberating.

Bazan purges all of that in the songs here. It’s beautiful and tragic. Whether he’s drunkenly looking over his infant child in the wee hours (“Bless This Mess” hoping she won’t soon “hate the smell of booze” on his breath “like her mother”), wondering how to answer the big questions those children have (“In Stitches” , ” “Bearing Witness”)or laying blame on a creator for mankind’s faults (asking did You push us “When we Fell”) Bazan is boldly seeking answers in his fear and hope. He details the struggle his crisis may have on others, fearing his mother’s tears when she learns of his disbelief (“When We Fell”) and that his doubt will spread like “original sin” to his “kids and devout wife” (“Harmless Sparks”). Bazan traces us through his graduation and distancing from his family (“Hard to Be”) and envisions a future when his children may make the same mistakes (“Please Baby Please”). He rages against the indifference of the world for not letting us call our own shots (“Curse Your Branches”) and closes everything out with his most heartbreaking song, “In Stitches” where he hears the voice of the long dead captain in a ship left out at sea. Its certainly not all sad and even in its sadness it’s defiant and comfortingly human. “Bearing Witness” takes back the language of his childhood to reconfigure it as solid advice for his own children  and there are hints of possibility in even the saddest corners here. Bazan’s voice and acoustic guitar may not be ground-breaking or exceedingly “excellent” but they are more than serviceable and their imperfections really make these words come to life even more.

A great record that deserves a wider audience. I’m sure many of Pedro’s fans grew into their own crisis of faith and if so they could have worse guides struggling through to make sense of what comes after faith than Bazan. You can find “Curse Your Branches” currently on Apple Music (but not Spotify) and I’m sure it was pressed as CD–not sure about vinyl though I’ll keep my eyes open for it if so in the future.

This is an odd post for me in terms of format. I invited your general comments here and stated I was going to try blogging again but from a new vantage point. Here’s where I start doing that, but as it’s the first such attempt it’s quite scatter-shot. I want to throw out every line of thought I have on these events as seeds for my future series of posts which will address controversial art and culture, different conceptions of “God” and how they work themselves out in society, etc. This piece is quite lengthy too and I’m sure by speaking on Hedbo and Boko Haram I will anger someone though that is not my point. So as a warning here it is in case my lines of argument meander: I am thoroughly anti-terror; anti-extremism; pro-pluralism; pro-free speech; anti-Islamaphobia; anti-racist; anti-hate speech; and a few other things along the way. Here goes.

Terrorists committed acts of senseless violence in Paris and Nigeria in the name of Islam once again. Once again, people are pondering what role freedom of speech, censorship, and religion plays in all of this. But are we talking about the right things and are we talking about them in the right context? I have studied Islam for many years. I’ve studied religion as a whole even longer. It’s impossible to know if I would have initially studied Islam as intensely as I did if not for 9/11, but I know that event certainly caused me to look deeper into a religion I before knew very little about. Yet the things that sustained my interest in Islam and kept me pouring so deeply over its texts—the Quran, hadiths, as well as books on Islam’s history, theology, and ethics, not to mention Sufi poetry and works on Arab, Persian, and “Islamic” culture—was much deeper, richer, and more complex than current events and terrorism. What kept my attention was this concept of a stark, complete Monotheism; monotheism of a sort that was somehow mystical and holistic, and really quite sensible as far as religious beliefs go even if it never was my own belief. What kept me studying and working around Islam in some way was becoming aware of the progress, cultural development, and unique history of inventiveness in Islamic history and culture so often overlooked by the west and left silent in most western history classes and textbooks. It was the way Islam intertwined science, philosophy, theology, art, and a type of de facto pluralism for so many years during their brightest hours. It was a host of writers, Muslim and Non-Muslim who had a love and deep knowledge of the subject on deft display in their work: Rumi, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Seyyed Nasr, Khaled Abou El Fadl, W. Montgomery Watt, Mohammad Iqbal, Abdualiziz Sachedina, G. Willow Wilson, Malcolm X, Eboo Patel, Marshall Hodgson, and many other writers, theologians, teachers and students ancient and current. And of course, it also became the friends and colleagues I’ve met over the years who identify as Muslims—students, teachers, and coworkers who are diverse, passionate, funny, forward-thinking and devout. Every time a tragedy like these recent events occur I think of those folks I’ve met over the years who work so hard to make progress—progress in religious study, science, academia, non-profits and society as a whole who time and time again find themselves pressed to defend their culture, their religion and ultimately their own identity in a way Christians and secularists never are when violence is done in the name of Christ or rationalism. Admittedly right here right now radical Islam certainly has a huge corner of much of the market on extremist violence in the way those other ideologies at the moment do not—but there are many factors for this and I hope to get there in this series of posts. Inter-religious dialogue, inter-faith action, and religious pluralism were (and in many ways remain) passionate interests and objectives of mine. I think these areas must also include dialogue and cooperation with atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists though.

So I want to talk about violence as it pertains to religion. I want to be as honest as I can and welcome as much comment as is given. This is the first of many in this new set of dialogues, so give me time to get there.

During my own spiritual development I have been many things. I was a southern Baptist as a child for reasons most people are what they are—because that’s what my parents were and that’s how they raised me. In my late teens I was nothing for awhile, but not adamantly nothing. I was “Christian” but disillusioned with church. I wanted something that seemed real to me. Then I became an Episcopalian as a twenty-something, in love with ritual, symbolism and seemingly ancient styles of worship on the one hand and progressive theology on the other. I attended a Presbyterian seminary sometime after, pursuing a Masters in religious studies. I then attended Unitarian Universalist churches but never committed. I’ve attended so many places of worship as a student, visitor, and inter-faith participant—synagogues, mosques, Buddhist and Hindu temples, and practically every Christian denomination. When visiting most places of worship regardless of the type I’ve always been fascinated with what I see and met the kindest people, but as a whole I have never “felt” those services. For me, I have to reinterpret and re-contextualize so much of what I encounter in a place of worship to make what is presented something palatable and relatable, so much so that at the end of that effort I no longer recognize it as that which it really is. So I guess I’m secular now. The thing is, some of those I debated early on—on this blog, in classrooms, and elsewhere—likely felt this was the only place I could end up. I was adamantly in the “progressive Christian” camp for awhile, arguing it on paper and in person quite thoroughly. Those on the more conservative end of the spectrum saw it as a slippery slope to where I find myself now. They likely saw this result as inevitable. But I really know that the place I was arguing from was a real and authentic place even if part of me knew even then I was eventually to move out of that space. I know so many heartfelt, intelligent, active individuals working to make the world a better place fervently and cognitively in that camp now and they’ve been there longer than I was and will likely remain there. I’m always hesitant to word things in a way that makes it seem like I have “evolved” past particular viewpoints because I don’t see it that way and wouldn’t want those folks to think I did either. Part of me wishes I could still claim that same territory as my own but I can’t and the most I can say even close to negative for those who can is that I am unable to see how they remain there sometimes. But I digress. Secular Humanism is yet another label though and I’m increasingly wary of religious (and irreligious) labels. I know that I am (perhaps doomed is a strong word) to remain in conversation with religion on a deep level forever. It intrigues me, abhors me, invites me. Many of my heroes and many of those I see making the most positive impact on the world continue to be religious people. Certainly scientists and rationalists make huge impacts but the work of heroes like MLK Jr. were so intrinsically interwoven with their own faith in all that I could never write off the power and promise of unabashed religion.

Conversely, critique of religion and art that stands in defiance of the religious culture it finds itself in, particularly of the excesses and hypocrisies of that religion have always attracted me. In hindsight, were it not for my love of rock, metal, and hip hop music as a young teen I might not have challenged my church’s agenda on almost every issue as I did. I loved my Metallica CDs so much so that my youth leader’s insistence that such music was evil and that as Christians we should only listen to music that explicitly praises God forced me to step back, re-evaluate, and argue against a slew of church party-lines. This reached a height of debate that was totally out of place as I look back on it yet that was instrumental on practically everything else I’ve done regarding religion ever since. I would show up to youth group meetings prepared to debate the issues. I had studied scripture, other interpretations of that scripture, and how other churches related differently to the issues and I would fight my point. Not raising my voice, not intentionally being disrespectful, but always arguing. I argued women in ministry (pro), evolution (pro), “hell houses” (anti), Bill Clinton (pro) and more than anything music, movies and art (pro). This was really an odd way to spend youth group and Sunday school as a 14-16 year old kid, but that’s how it went for me. All credit due to the church leaders for not simply tossing me out. One in particular always welcomed my engagement and argued his opposing view in a friendly, paternal way. Another, no t so much. Yet if it weren’t for my deep love of music, music which might shock, offend, or engage, but more than anything, music that was just willing to address every type of emotion or thought without filter or censorship I might never have truly evaluated what I thought about my religious beliefs.

So now, I step back to really think about some things in this regard. A lot of conservative commentators have dredged up the old “piss Christ” artwork from several years ago that caused a stir but certainly wasn’t attacked, defaced or even de-funded. Conservative pundits have complained of the American press’s defense of such art and their criticism and perceived ridicule of religious conservatives angry over such things in contrast to those same voices now claiming Charlie Hedbo overstepped boundaries. Why have blasphemous artwork in public museums and in media archives but not reprint the controversial Hedbo cartoons? I can’t help but think of myself; how Islamaphobic comments have always made me bristle, especially since getting to know so many great Muslim people and studying so much of Islam’s rich history and modern theology. I’ve always been vocal that terrorists do not represent Islam and that most loud criticisms of Islam—from Bill Maher or the late Christopher Hitchens—sadly misunderstand and lampoon authentic Islam. Yet on the other hand, I’ve never had a problem with art or music that radically challenges Christianity even when I was at my most “Christian.” Be it Ennis’ graphic novel “Preacher,” Kevin Smith’s film “Dogma” or Marilyn Manson’s “Antichrist Superstar,” (looking back at time-appropriate references to my teen years) I’ve always found such work served a purpose even if I disagreed with the specifics of the statements being made. In fact, I’ve always been drawn to pop culture that directly addresses such matters even if from what many would consider an offensive vantage point. Metal music fascinates me because of this—few avenues of popular culture or art address, critique, and deconstruct religion of all kinds and in every way as much as extreme metal has over the years. But here’s the thing. Christianity in the modern west functions much differently than Islam in the modern Middle East or Africa or even in Europe. We’re all born into a subtle Christian culture which is all around us even when not spoken of It’s just assumed that one is Christian in America and this has provoked much of the reaction against it. It seems to play a role in very selective political issues, often with hypocritical irony. Usually those that criticize Christianity in places of power come from nominally Christian backgrounds even if they reject that religion. Yet if we in the west are to criticize Islam on the same grounds in the same way, we do so as outsiders of that culture and tradition and often without true understanding of that religion or the cultural and ethnic identities inherently tied up with and born into that religion. The staff of Charlie Hedbo did not deserve the violence that was inflicted upon them; but they were not criticizing Islam in the same way or with the same impetus and method as say Marilyn Manson attacked Christianity in the 1990s. They lampooned Islam from an outside perspective, isolating and provoking a minority community in France and often with racial overtones. Should they have had that right? Sure. Yet it’s not quite the same thing as, say, Nergal of Behemoth writing “The Satanist” in response to being charged with blasphemy for “non-Christian activity” in his native Poland; especially since he’s on record as happy to continue to be surrounded by Christians as long as there’s diversity and he can defy their viewpoints in his art. And at least his work is steeped in the knowledge of the text and traditions he is criticizing. He goaded a majority from a minority standpoint, primarily in a way to emphasize individuality, liberty, and personal rights; the Hedbo cartoons played on xenophobia, racism, and Islamaphobia. They did so in a very volatile milieu under steady threat and as such stuck to their guns bravely, but I feel a bit ambivalent about defending such work in an argument on free speech. Yet I mourn their death and decry the acts of terror.

Bill Maher says we should hold all religions up to ridicule because that’s what they deserve. The problem is that we will not solve anything by doing so. Secular humanists and atheists should certainly work in partnership with Christians and Muslims to solve problems but they cannot do so by agitating and ridiculing on-edge communities and they cannot do so by lumping an entire culture into a false stereotype. The only way to stem the tide of Islamic extremism is by fostering a healthy and vibrant progressive Islam. Those who attack religious conventions in societies where a monolithic religion reigns around them do so because their outsider status in that community is isolating. Rejecting, attacking, and critiquing the overall religious environment they find themselves in is healthy even when the specifics of the statements are problematic. Attacking a minority religion from a majority perspective is dangerous.

Now, as I write this the horrific events in Nigeria have been reported. I’m reminded of one additional fact in considering the carnage and senseless acts of terror that were perpetrated there—Muslims are the biggest victim of terrorism. Extremist Muslims violate every religious law they claim to follow on a consistent basis. From the Muslim security guard murdered in the Charlie Hedbo shooting and the Muslims slaughtered by Boko Haram as direct victims at the hands of those misguidedly claiming the same religion to the millions of cultural, ethnic, and practicing Muslims around the world who continuously find themselves asked to defend their religion and identity; not to mention the outside violence and retaliation terrorism brings back to Muslim homelands. By and away the largest victims of Islamic extremists are average Muslims.

So I’m conflicted. I believe in freedom of speech intensely. I believe any religious or ideological thought or belief is fair game for critique in the court of public discourse. Yet I do not believe in castigating someone’s identity and culture in a marginalizing way that heightens tension and increases the potential for violence. I also do not believe that the way to bring about an end to extremism lies in forcing a group to ridicule its own identity. In this entire conversation I think we are not talking about the right things. We’re not talking about the inherent identity of religion– that for most people religious identity is determined by birth place and parents. We’re not talking about how Islam is a diverse, complex religion and its adherents vary drastically around the world. We’re not emphasizing that so many of the victims of Islamic extremism are Muslims themselves. We’re not reporting the huge number of Muslims and Muslim groups who are speaking out against terrorism and working actively against it in partnership with other religions and secularists. We’re not talking about our role—the West’s—in helping form and spread modern religious extremism. That’s it. That’s what I’ve got right now. When I continue I will be more focused and to the point; this time it was all about throwing out every conflicted thought I had on these events in preparation for a more focused future approach and series of posts. I invite your comments below; please be aware I am not trying to be authoritative on any of what I’ve said above other than the part about my own religious journey. I welcome opposing viewpoints but please don’t approach it as if I’ve issued the “right” answer and will tackle a formal defense. Thanks for reading.

The Best of 2014

December 24, 2014

So it seems I’ve abdicated “Raging Against the Dying Light” much of this year as I haven’t posted anything since summer. Yet it’s the end of the year and I’ve posted my end-of-year picks every year since I began this blog in 2008 and I don’t feel like letting this year get by without at least some such post. I’ve always enjoyed this part of the blogging year more than any other as I thoroughly enjoy reading every magazine, blog, and random person’s pick of the year for almost everything. It’s a great way to learn about things that have gotten by my radar when reading other people’s picks and it’s a great way to time-capsule my own favorites as I organize these each year. That being said, I’m foregoing the usual slew of posts (10 Best Albums, 25 best songs, 10 Best metal, 10 Best Hip Hop, 10 Best Movies, 10 Best comics, etc.). I’m taking a cue from one of my favoire living musicians, Patterson Hood, who simply posted some alphabetically ordered favorite picks and highlighted top choices. So here goes.

My Top Albums of 2014 (all genres, in alphabetical order– those in bold are my top 10)

1) Agalloch – The Serpent and the Sphere
2) At the Gates – At War With Reality
3) Behemoth – The Satanist
4) Bloodbath – Grand Morbid Funeral
5) Common – Nobody’s Smiling
6) Cynic – Kindly Bent to Free Us
7) Drive By Truckers – English Oceans
8) Drive By Truckers – Black Ice Verite
9) Dum Dum Girls – Too True
10) Electric Wizard – Time to Die
11) Eric Clapton and Friends – The Breeze (a tribute to JJ Cale)
12) Gary Clark Jr. – Gary Clark Jr. Live
13) Horrendous – Ecdysis
14) Jenny Lewis – The Voyager
15) Jessica Lea Mayfield – Make My Head Sing
16) Junius – Days of the Fallen Sun (EP)
17) Lana Del Ray – Ultraviolence
18) Lecrae – Anomaly
19) Lord Mantis – Death Mask
20) Machine Head – Bloodstones and Diamonds
21) Matisyahu – Akeda
22) New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers
23) The Oath – The Oath
24) Opeth – Pale Communion
25) Pallbearer – Foundations of Burden
26) Rich Gang (Young Thug, Birdman, and Rich Homie Quan): Tha Tour Pt. 1
27) The Roots – …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin
28) Rosanne Cash – The River and the Thread
29) Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2
30) Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams
31) Schoolboy Q – Oxymoron
32) The Secret Sisters – Put Your Needle Down
33) Slipknot – .5 The Grey Chapter
34) Spoon – They Want My Soul
35) Steel Panther – All You Can Eat
36) Tom Petty – Hypnotic Eye
37) Tryptykon – Melana Chasmata
38) Tweedy – Sukie Rae
39) U2 – Songs of Innocence
40) The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream
songs (mostly from albums not chosen above, with a few notable exceptions when the song was just that good as a song itself divorced from the overall album)

1) Against Me! – “Transgender Dysphoria Blues”
2) Cannibal Corpse – “Kill or Become”
3) Gaslight Anthem – “Get Hurt”
4) High Spirits – “I Will Run”
5) Hold Steady – “Oaks”
6) Insomnium – “While We Sleep”
7) Jessie J feat. Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj – “Bang Bang”
8) Johnny Cash – “Out Among the Stars”
9) Mastodon – “The Motherload”
10) Morrissey – “World Peace is None of Your Business”
11) New Pornographers – “Dancehall Domine”
12) Spoon – “New York Kiss”
13) Tori Amos – “Unrepentant Geraldines”
14) Tweedy – “Low Key”
15) U2 – “Iris (Hold Me Close)”

1) Bird Man
2) Chef
3) Godzilla
4) Gone Girl
5) Guardians of the Galaxy
6) Interstellar
7) St. Vincent
8) Top 5
9) X-Men: Days of Future Past

Books (difficult because the bulk of books I read this year were published in 2013 or earlier)
1) Revival – Stephen King
2) The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap – Matt Taibbi
3) How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee – Bart Ehrman

TV (difficult because I tend to watch shows after they hit Netflix)
1) True Detective
2) Homeland
3) Gotham
4) The Goldbergs
5) Cosmos


1) Saga
2) Batman (Scott Snyder)
3) Lazarus
4) Nailbiter
5) A Voice in the Dark
6) Minimum Wage
7) Southern Bastards
8) Stray Bullets
9) Wytches
10) Ms. Marvel
11) Hawkeye
12) Afterlife with Archie

This is the beginning of a series on Evolution Theology–by that I mean an (admittedly novice) attempt at sketching out a potential theology capable of incorporating progressively, cohesively, and enthusiastically the science of biological and astrophysical (cosmic) evolution, including natural selection and quantum theory and all that such fields may include. I have no pretensions of doing this definitively or expertly–this is more of a journey and fumbling attempt by a reader and a constant student, and at that one better versed in world religions and philosophy than science. As such I fully expect to miss some of the disparate opinions and nuances of much of what I introduce, so I fully welcome comments and corrections in the appropriate sections at the end of each column, by whoever wishes to dialogue with me. I welcome all resource suggestions any may provide.

I not only hope to sketch out what a hopeful attempt at  a true, science-affirming theology–not just one which concedes to science that which is of science and then ignores the field in all practical and spiritual concerns but rather incorporates and enthuses all that which is of merit–but also to tie those concerns to the idea that religion itself in its denominational and global variations also follows the path of evolution in a cultural and perhaps even transcendent sense. That all which we see in religious diversity is part of a “tree” of religion. For this thread I owe much to the excellent scholars and their proposals in “Three Testaments.”

So bear with me and I hope you enjoy.

The Myth of Progress

To begin with, I offer this prologue musing on a concept argued expertly by the late Stephen Jay Gould in his work “Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Darwin to Plato.” I acknowledge some controversy to his work—from allegations that his ideas are correct but not original,l to the arguments against some of his premises by other evolutionists. Yet the idea he proposes, whether accepted earlier or argued since, is certainly convincingly made and seemingly in line with most of current biological theory and one that, if not challenging to his fellow scientists is certainly challenging to many laypersons. Gould argued that perhaps the most common misconception regarding evolution is that it is always progressive–that natural selection as a theory works itself out in an “upward” manner. Gould argues that the traditional way of envisioning evolution is as a chart, a progressive march from apelike ancestors to the modern human being as the pinnacle of evolution. I would concur that it seems likely that this is indeed what most of those who commonly accept evolution envision–overlooking the hardline creationists and science-deniers on the one hand and the full-on scientists on the other, I wager that common laypersons typically see the progression of primordial substances to human beings as a constant chain of progression and the example par excellence of all that natural selection exhibits. Even in everyday language “evolution” is often used synonymously with “progress,” as if the “evolution” of something is always an obvious higher stage.  Gould cuts the wind from under that by laying out different case studies which force his readers to learn to look at data from different angles; but the short of it is that bacteria far outnumber human beings and each life-form we would label as bacteria today exhibits remarkable versatility, adaptation, and “perfection” in that they function as they ought to and often better. Per Gould (and most modern evolutionary biologists) human beings with their consciousness and deliberating abilities are a minority–or as Gould put it, a short tail on a large dog (and everyone knows the tail cannot wag the dog). The truth of evolution is that it is adaptation–not always up, not always better. Life that adapts to its geography and climate for survival is rarely “better” in any subjective manner–i.e., a wooly mammoth was no better than an un-hairy elephant, just better suited for the cold. Variation is the normative state of life according to this line of thought. Difference, originality, creativity. There is in fact no objective “normal.” Life varies and no upper echelon for any branch of it is guaranteed.

The myth of progress runs deep. It was embedded in rationalism and enlightenment philosophy. It took root in Western political philosophy and inspired both great and terrible things. Evolution, when absorbed under its umbrella, fit nicely when viewed as the scientific leg of a system which envisioned optimistically an ideal future in which the bulk of problems could be conquered. Some of the greatest liberal theologies and political philosophies were grounded in the myth of progress. Not all that grew out of this was (or is) bad; but today the problem likely is not that too many embrace a theory of constant, perpetual progress but rather that too many believe that all is slipping from what was once great.

The Myth of a Golden Age

I’ve written before of the problem with nosalgia. The problem often today is that far too many assume there was a better, often going just shy of claiming a perfect, time. Politically, nationally, religiously, once was better and we are falling away from that time. Gould used the example of baseball in his “Full House” book; the disappearance of .400 hitting, according to Gould, is evidence of an overall improvement in baseball skills not a sign of decreasingly skilled hitters as “golden age of baseball” cynics (and retirees) opine. In proving this argument he managed to prompt readers to learn to evaluate data differently, more broadly, more accurately. I am tempted to digress into a similar bit of argument here on a cultural issue–the often exclaimed “they just don’t write ’em like that any more, play ’em like that anymore” argument by those who argue that music has slowly slid downhill decade by decade. I love the Beatles and Miles as much as any serious music fan but I also recognize amazing current artists. The fact that once such artists garnered more popular airplay than they do now, the issue of media consolidation and the uptick of “artistic” capitalism, and the bias of those with nostalgic ears are all issues that have nothing to do with the quality of the music itself. I may come back to this later more depth, but for now I assume you get the idea.

No, for our issue at hand, I can simply say that the idea of a once pure religiosity, religious body, or religion itself is fallacious. We very likely will traverse the dispersion and inter-connectedness of religious bodies, tenets, and thought throughout this series of explorations but that core of originality was not more perfect than what might be found today; religions are connected, springing from common ancestry, but they have neither fully progressed to more perfect forms today nor were they once golden and now forever tarnished. Diversity and adaption are the norm in religion as well as biology and we will explore how this understanding might affect a newer religious sensibility as well.

I hope you will follow with me and converse, argue, and correct me along the way as I dip my toes in these various subjects throughout the upcoming year.

The 25 Best Songs of 2013

December 21, 2013

I do recognize how grandiose it sounds to label my favorite picks as “the best” of anything, as if my own opinion is definitive in anyway. I’ve been doing these lists at the end of each year for five years now, and I simply love doing it; I love sorting through everything I’ve listened to, read, saw, etc. in December each year and taking my time ranking them, re-evaluating them, compiling playlists that I can go back to in the years to come to help me remember other details of that year, to think of what was going on as those songs or films accompanied me. I love seeing how other lists compare to my own, be they choices of friends of mine, major magazines, other blogs, etc. So yes, these are my choices for the “Best 25” songs of the year in full recognition that there were many great songs and that these only capture a fraction of one person’s best attempt at describing the best of the diverse creativity to be found in 2013.

A reminder on my considerations–when I pick a song for this list, I consider that song as it stands alone. I used to exclude any songs taken from any albums that made my best albums list to better expose other records that may otherwise go unmentioned, but I changed gears on that method a few years ago. I now think about how that song played by itself, on the radio, in videos, on the internet, on personal playlists; how excellent does that song work as a song divorced from the context of its album. This means that some of these songs come from albums I’ve picked on my preceding lists and that others do not. I may have a top ranking album I love in which all the songs are great but I then may go on to not list any songs from it for my top songs because I feel that particular art works best cohesively; or I may include a song that I found to be excellent pulled from an otherwise abominable album.

Okay. Here goes.


25) The Mother We Share – CHVRCHES

I’m a sucker for synth pop and thanks to the success of artists like M83 in recent years, there’s been more of it this decade than at anytime since the eighties. The best of it has often been lyrically and conceptually deeper than the catchy outfitting it has would suggest and this track certainly follows that pattern. Even Drake gave us a synth pop track this year, but this is one of the best I heard all  year.


24) My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark- Fall Out Boy

A band no one really expected (and that few likely sat around wishing) to make a comeback did so with better than could be expected results. FOB fully embraced their cheesy and over-the-top pretensions and released one of the best singles they’ve ever had. Minus the emo and plus some hair-metal and the result is a stick-in-your-head power pop gem.


23) Started From the Bottom – Drake

I mean, everyone has cracked on Drake for exaggerating how far towards the “bottom” he truly started. Quickly transitioning from a Canadian hit teen melodrama to a signed deal with Cash Money records by Lil Wayne and instant platinum sells long before he’s even hit thirty doesn’t really seem like too much of a professional struggle. Anyway, overlooking that we still get a catchy, thumping, hooky track that sounds great and has likely served to amp up and inspire many a young hip hop fan whilst driving around the city (or suburbs).


22) Heartbreaker – Motorhead

My favorite song from these speed metal standard-bearers since “Ace of Spades.” All hail Lemmy and co.


21) Applause – Lady Gaga

I don’t think Gaga has ever released a “classic” album but she’ s certainly made some of the best mainstream (yet quirky and eccentric) pop songs of recent years. Far better than the “Do What You Want” follow-up (which despite its intentions of commentary just sounded creepy as a hit song likely being sung along to by schoolchildren everywhere). “Applause” is just a superb ear-worm in the vein of “Bad Romance.”


20) Cut Me Some Slack – Paul McCartney, Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic & Pat Smear

How cool is this? For the Sound City Soundtrack, Paul McCartney played front-man for a reunited Nirvana, rocking harder than he has in years (though he’s never really fallen off anyway).


19) Obvious Bicycle – Vampire Weekend

This is one of my favorite album-openers/tone-setters in recent years but it also holds up superbly as a single song and is by far the track from Modern Vampires of the City that I played the most this year. It’s got excellent, timely lyrics, beautiful vocals, and multiple appealing melodies and quirky flourishes, not to mention a perfect little piano-pecking close out.

dawes seat

18) From a Window Seat – Dawes

The best track from Dawes new record sticks with me for a number of reasons; that oddly captivating first verse which compares the take-off prep routines of flight attendants to ancient rituals which “bloodline reaches through” and of course the perfectly repetitive back-beat. One great Dawes song to me is worth 10 Avett (or Mumford) songs and this one is one of their best yet.

nin sat

17) Satellite – Nine Inch Nails

Trent Reznor gives us a gothic tinged techno dance track about government surveillance, perfect for this year of NSA news.


16) Black Skinhead – Kanye West

Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People” may be one of the best metal songs of all time, largely due to its simple yet unavoidable tribal rhythm drumbeat. Kanye takes that beat and condenses it down to make it even more rhythmic as a sample for this track. His rhymes aren’t his best ever here but there are some flashes of his wit and lyrical skill nonetheless; his flat out screams between bars punctuated by severe bass hits just pummel the listener and then Kanye’s out barely cracking the three minute mark.


15) You’re Not Good Enough – Blood Orange

Another synth pop track to make the cut here, but this one owes much more to Prince than New Order. In fact it sounds like a missing cut from 1999. His vocals even echo Prince, and those female accompaniment vocals may as well be Sheila E. Funk electronic synth pop at its finest (is that even a current sub-genre?)


14) Kevin Gates – Paper Chasers

Like I mentioned in my 10 Best Hip Hop Albums of 2013 post, “Paper Chasers” is simply the best sing-songy gangsta rap track since the first (and only good) 50 album. Yet it has a subtle emotional pathos that 50 would never dare to exude or even tolerate. There’s a sense in the best of Gates’ work that consequences and moral uncertainty always lurk beneath even the most nihilistic of boasts.


13) Do I Wanna Know? – Arctic Monkeys

This current sound suits Arctic Monkeys much better than their Garage Punk phase back when they first broke (somewhat) in America. This sound throws in a large dose of funky R&B with smoother vocals, addicting bass-lines, and musical seduction. This is the catchiest, most enjoyable song on the whole record.


12) This is Love (Feels Alright) – Camera Obscura

Okay, so there is something about Camera Obscura that makes one think they were tailor crafted for your average NPR listener or Starbucks addict. They are nostalgic, arty, and nonthreatening. This is warm, country-tinged, beach-music recasting, world folk music that is capped by the warmest vocals on record this year. This stand-out track even makes use of the triangle! But it’s just so catchy, fun, romantic, and actually un-pretentious despite all of the elements which would be as such from many lesser artists.


11) Sea of Love – The National

The National haven’t historically made much that could serve as hit singles despite being on a run of at least three classic albums by this point; but “Sea of Love” rocks harder and more convincingly than anything they’ve ever done on the harder edge. Matt Berringer’s complex, nuanced, often cryptic, lyrics are the draw for most National fans but they’ve always been presented with a captivating (if monotonous to some) baritone and backed by seriously talented musicianship. Here on this song, the more “listener-friendly” elements of the band come together–a good chorus, some great break-downs, excellent drum-beat, etc.


10) Reflketor – Arcade Fire

I almost chose several tracks from the great new Arcade Fire record, but I ultimately felt like this opening title track is the best single song on the album and also an excellent encapsulation of the album as a whole as well. It’s over 7 minutes long but never wears out its welcome. From it’s slow burn opening to its David Bowie assisted closing, the elements of Carribean, Afro-Pop, Disco, Techno, Indie Pop, and  Synth Pop make for a perfect dance-floor soundscape which support some great thematic and captivating lyrics that ask big questions, and express big concerns. The idea of technology assisted isolation, the concept that we all exist together alone in the social media age is perfectly distilled here without weighing down a great rock song.

smith westerns

9) Idol – Smith Westerns

I loved the entire Soft Will album these guys released this year. I listened to it all summer long and it is likely one of the closest albums to making my final best-albums list that I haven’t mentioned so far; this second song on the record shows what they do best. It’s Big Star like power pop with elements of the Smiths in the background. It’s melancholy and joyful at the same time, a perfect summer song that kind of emotionally recreates the last summer of everyone’s high-school– it looks forward and backward simultaneously, transforms nostalgia into creative new ground and yet never deviates from a perfect (and perfectly simplistic) pop song.


8) Tennis Court – Lorde

Lorde had an unexpected smash hit with “Royals,” and now this anti-pop anti-consumerism alt-teen who seemed to be making hip hop influenced pop with tongue placed firmly in cheek is now herself a pop star. “Royals” is fine but I prefer “Tennis Court” which is just so precocious yet captivating. A great beat, surprisingly competent rapping, and a great self-conscious hook.


7) Drove Me Wild – Tegan and Sara

The surprise pop album of the year; Tegan and Sara have long made excellent music, but I doubt anyone ever expected them to forgo their emotionally meditative emo-tinted indie rock for a full-on dance pop record. The whole Heartthrob album is fantastic, but this romantic bedroom reminiscence buoyed by high-energy beats, melodies, and T&S’s soaring vocals is my favorite cut thereon.

s earle

6) Burnin’ It Down – Steve Earle & The Dukes (And Duchesses)

Steve Earle regrouped with his Dukes this year, a band that usually assisted him in making his rock-country upper music, yet that here give him suitable backing for his folk Americana tales. “Burnin’ It Down” is a full on outspoken anti-WalMart song. The narrator describes visiting his home town, a place he had always thought he would return to in retirement, yet finding it decimated by the new Wal-Mart. So he sits in his truck in the parking lot contemplating arson. It works as a strictly anti-corporate track but even more powerfully as a song about the sadness one realizes when they find they never can really go home again.


5) If I Could Change Your Mind – Haim

When I read the pre-release buzz for Haim I expected to hear a hard rock (or at least full tilt rock and roll) girl group. Instead, Days Are Gone is yet another 80s inspired pop rock record in a year full of them. But that’s fine, because the songs on it are beautiful, Stevie Nicks led Fleetwood Mac meets Cindi Lauper style post-aughties pop. There are a lot of standout earworms on the record, but the best to me is this one.


4) Broken – Jake Bugg

Jake Bugg released two records this year and is quickly proving himself to be a great new young talent, a folk singer who draws on the oldest of rock’s folk re-appropriations to do the same thing to them that they did to the classic folkies yet again in a new, modern manner. The best cut from his first record is this single, “Broken.” It’s just an achingly beautiful love song.

neko man

3) Neko Case – Man

This is Neko’s best single since “This Tornado Loves You.” Her voice is still the best instrument in practically all of modern popular music and her talent for writing excellent (if sometimes indiscernible in meaning) lyrics continues here, all of which is propelled relentlessly forward by a groove-oriented rock and roll rhythm section. Is she critiquing the entire concept of gender roles, labels, expectations, etc? I think so?


2) Jason Isbell – Elephant

Isbell made the best record of the year, Southeastern. I have several rotating favorite cuts from that record, yet as I mentioned in my album review, this song I have perhaps played the least. Yet I think it is by far the best song on the entire album. There is a short list of songs that I keep, songs that I love, that I think rank among the best ever written but that are so powerful, emotional, haunting, or troubling that I find it difficult to casually listen to them. I’ve started to spin this one a bit more now, but it was beginning to drift into that category for me. It’s just so raw, honest, and real; he retells a friendship with a woman dying of cancer in such an achingly present manner that it is hard to listen to without getting very sad. “No one dies with dignity” hits like a punch to the gut and speaks a deep if troubling truth by the time you reach it as a listener. Isbell’s voice is in top form here, the music is sparse but memorable, the hooks perfect, the chorus low and properly under-stated, and the lyrics likely the best written by any major popular musician this entire year.Local_Natives-_Bryan_Sheffield1

1) Local Natives – Ceilings

I didn’t know this would be my number 1 song until rather recently. It always seems to me like my top pick should represent something about the year as a whole; either because it signifies a style, genre, scene or theme or because it carries a message appropriate to where the world was that year. This year though, I have to opt for this dreamy, perfect little indie rock ballad. I’ve never ranked a Local Natives album at the top of anything but they always make good music; they also manage to occasionally make single songs that stick with me and cause me to relentlessly listen to them repeatedly, to include on a dozen separate mixes, and to revisit  for years to come. Such was the case with “Wild Eyes” in 2010 and such is the case with “Ceilings” this year. I played “Ceilings” more than any other new track this year and I will likely listen to it quite a bit in the future. I love the vocals, the melody, the lyrics. None of these things are unusually progressive, forceful, extraordinary literate or daringly proficient. Everything just comes together simply, fully, cohesively. The feel of one perfect album, movie, or moment in life just comes down drastically condensed into a song that is six seconds short of three minutes. My favorite song of 2013.