How Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper Portray Their Faith

Kendrick Lamar's Humble video

With DAMN., Kendrick Lamar has produced yet another dense and brilliant album. The 29-year-old from Compton is firmly in his prime and still on top of the rap world. Curiously, part of what captivates Kendrick’s fans is the heavy spiritual element in his music since at least his debut studio album Section.80. The current King of Hip-Hop has always incorporated his faith in approachable and compelling ways, and that certainly doesn’t change on DAMN.

Similarly, hip-hop’s fastest rising star, Chance the Rapper, also speaks frequently about God on his 2016 album Coloring Book, albeit in quite a different way. The production and lyrical style of Chance’s music will not often be confused with Kendrick’s, but there can be no doubting that both love to explore the spiritual side of life.

There’s more than one way to portray faith in your art. In the manner they evoke religious themes and their own personal faith, two of the most popular and important rappers in the game are showing us two sides of the same coin.

“I am a sinner who’s probably gonna sin again…”

The pictures Kendrick and Chance paint with their words tend to contrast in fascinating ways. Kendrick repeatedly wrestles with sin and brokenness — in himself, his community, and the entire world. His rhymes can often be tortured, conflicted, and angst-ridden; it’s part of what makes his music so relatable and rewarding.

Like most, I was first introduced to Kendrick when Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City came out in 2012. On “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” I was immediately struck with the line, “I am a sinner who’s probably gonna sin again…” Within the context of the song, it didn’t seem like a flippant line about reveling in sin. It seemed like a straightforward and vulnerable admission of human weakness. It made me sit up and pay attention to what he was actually saying on the album.

Growing up in Compton, there was no shortage of vices available to derail Kendrick before he became one of the all-time great MCs. The autobiographical Good Kid reports on Kendrick’s hellish experience in the streets. He admits on “The Art of Peer Pressure” that he’s “Never been violent / Until I’m with the homies.” He struggles against the temptation to lose himself in alcohol on “Swimming Pools (Drank).” He calls himself “Compton’s Human Sacrifice” on the menacing track “m.A.A.d. city.” Coming from his background, Kendrick continually makes it clear in his lyrics that he never should’ve made it out — much less as a positive role model.

This is why it’s fascinating to see him so openly and honestly thrash against his sinful nature as he strives to be the messiah that the culture makes him out to be. It’s difficult to imagine that kind of pressure, particularly when your past haunts you. On “The Blacker the Berry” from his jazz-funk magnum opus To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick repeatedly dubs himself “the biggest hypocrite of 2015.” This feeling, of being a pretender or a fraud, is something that many can identify with, whether you’re religious or not.

“Why God, why God, do I gotta suffer?”

A Kendrick record can very often be a raw, intimate portrait of his anguished soul, but he can also expand his scope to survey the broken world around him. Increasingly, he has taken aim at big-picture issues like racism, urban violence, and political disarray. While he’s still navigating his persistent materialistic desires, the suffering he witnesses on a mass scale leaves Kendrick disheartened and helpless. On To Pimp a Butterfly he laments police brutality (“Alright”) and greedy obsession with money (“Institutionalized”). On DAMN., he sees our screwed-up world in a decidedly Old Testament light (Deuteronomy is quoted on “FEAR.”). Kendrick and his people are cursed (or damned) for their disobedience and pride by a righteous, unforgiving God.

As he witnesses the world’s atrocities, it weighs heavy on Kendrick’s soul. Especially on DAMN., he’s particularly forthright about his doubts. The Ringer’s Micah Peters put it well in his recent piece on Kendrick and faith:

Kendrick’s faith functions astride the spiritual and the secular, leaving ample room for doubt; I’ve always thought of it as plainspoken. Or pragmatic. It’s his way of parsing the knottier, more trying questions you hope to never need ask or answer: What happens when life is too much? When you’re too angry or saddened to believe that prayer will be enough to cover it?

The contemplative track “FEAR.” finds Kendrick questioning God a la Jesus on the cross, pleading “Why God, why God, do I gotta suffer?” On multiple DAMN. songs, Kendrick asks for us to “pray for me.” It’s unusual and refreshing for a Christian artist to be so naked about their doubts.

“The type of worship make Jesus come back a day early”

Chance the Rapper's Grammy performance

This dark realism makes for a stark contrast with Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book. Chance’s faith on his album (technically, it’s a mixtape) is one of joyous worship and exuberance. From the very first notes on the very first track, “All We Got,” victorious trumpets announce God’s glory, as Chance’s deft wordplay and surprisingly excellent singing lead us in praise. Coloring Book might be enough to make the most hardened anti-church among us wander back into a pew. As David Dark points out for MTV News, “We’re never not worshiping in Chance’s world.”

Part one of “Blessings” (the last track is also called “Blessings”) has Chance’s dominant theme wrapped up in one chorus:

I’m gon’ praise Him, praise Him ’til I’m gone
I’m gon’ praise Him, praise Him ’til I’m gone
When the praises go up, the blessings come down
When the praises go up, the blessings come down
It seems like blessings keep falling in my lap
It seems like blessings keep falling in my lap

As he’s writing this song, Chance has a newborn baby girl (he’s lovingly looking down at her on the album’s cover) and has earned career success through a feature on his idol Kanye West’s new album, and more. He has plenty of reasons to praise God and thank Him for his blessings.

However, you still see temptation and sin creep into the corners of Chance’s wonderful world. Glimpses of his personal demons come into a view on “Finish Line/Drown” when he mentions his previous addiction to Xanax: “I’ve been lying to my body can’t rely on myself oh no / Last year got addicted to xans / Started forgetting my name and started missing my chance.” Similarly, he’s open about the sorrow he feels over the incessant violence in his hometown of Chicago on “Angels”: “It’s too many young angels on the southside / Got us scared to let our grandmommas outside.

But this is Chance’s stage, so the devil simply can’t win. “All We Got” sees Chance giving “Satan a swirlie” (a charmingly innocent threat). Later on that track, he claims, “I do not talk to the serpent / That’s that holistic discernment.” He continually relies on God to keep evil at bay. Does this come off as tone-deaf to all of the suffering we see, including the systemic racial injustices of our world? I think Chance would tell you his music is meant to uplift and inspire, all while staying grounded in the reality of sin. Kendrick’s music, on the other hand, does the reverse: It openly presents his struggles, all while providing a glimmer of light for us to find.

Their contrasting lyrical content naturally leads to contrasting sounds. Kendrick tends to be darker and meditative, utilizing knotty jazz instrumentation on To Pimp a Butterfly and simpler, bass-heavy beats on DAMN. Chance goes for a true gospel vibe on Coloring Book and other standout tracks, like “Sunday Candy.” Trumpets and choirs signal the worship that’s about to go down. The oversimplified difference between the two is a packed, high-energy gospel church on Sunday morning vs. a solitary figure alone with his tortured thoughts in a dark bedroom.

“The book don’t end with Malachi”

Kendrick Lamar's faith

Despite the often vast difference in lyrics and sound, where they converge is their belief that they stand in need of God’s grace. Both of them hail from rough backgrounds in violent neighborhoods, Compton and Chicago. And coincidentally enough, both of them had a spiritual awakening involving a grandmother’s prayer.

For Kendrick, it can be heard on Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City. The record opens with two boys praying: “Lord God, I come to you a sinner…” Ten tracks later we learn this prayer is being led by the grandma of Kendrick’s friend, who came upon them after their friend was murdered. This moment, in a Food 4 Less parking lot, is when Kendrick considers himself saved, when he accepted God’s grace and became motivated to live for Him.

Chance tells a similar story in a recent GQ interview. Around the time he released Acid Rap, his impressive second mixtape that put him on the hip-hop map, he was doing a copious amount of drugs. Chance describes himself as “gone all the time.” His grandmother noticed this and prayed over him, but not with a positive tone like she usually did. Chance recalls her prayer: “Lord, I pray that all things that are not like You, You take away from Chance. Make sure that he fails at everything that is not like You.” Afterwards, he said that even though it “damn near sounded like a curse,” this blessing gave him perspective. It was a kind of comforting message that God had promising plans for him and that where he succeeded, God would be the centerpiece. He got to work on Coloring Book soon after.

While Kendrick and Chance may have their own distinct point of view, both arrive at nuance in their work. Neither work with a narrow lens. Chance may be the more optimistic of the two, but he sometimes allows dark clouds to gather over his music as well. He’s melancholy on songs like “Summer Friends” and “Angels” as he bemoans Chicago’s murder rate, which includes some of his childhood friends. Conversely, Kendrick is capable of moments of heart-bursting hope. The transition from “u” to “Alright” on To Pimp a Butterfly is a perfect example. He goes from weeping in self-pity on the former to chanting “If God got us, then we gon’ be alright” on the latter. Personal torment thrillingly gives way to pragmatic assurance.

Between these two artists, which has a better and more true depiction of faith? The answer is, of course, both. There is real, profound power in both Kendrick’s vulnerable doubts and Chance’s irresistible joy. We need both of their styles in popular music. For a world that is deeply in need of redemption, Kendrick and Chance just provide it in different ways.

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We Gon’ See the Future First, Or, My Top 10 Albums of 2016

david-bowie-blackstar

Well, that was a weird year. From the thrillingly unthinkable (the drought-ending triumph of the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Cavaliers) to the depressingly unthinkable (the entire election cycle), 2016 just wouldn’t stop heaping strange, incredibly unlikely events upon us.

And yet, almost everyone agrees this is the best year music has had in a long time. Throughout this weird and improbable year, we were lucky enough to get undeniably brilliant and essential music. Many of pop and hip-hop’s titans unveiled new albums (Kanye, Beyonce, Drake, Rihanna). Several up-and-comers burst through with enjoyable and challenging work (Chance the Rapper, Anderson .Paak, Kaytranada). Enigmatic luminaries returned out of the blue (David Bowie, Radiohead, Frank Ocean).

Of course, 2016 will also be known as the year music lost some of its all-time visionaries. The deaths of Bowie, Prince, Merle Haggard, Leonard Cohen, Phife Dawg, and more hit the music world with a heavy, solemn thud. Although too young for their heyday, I traversed through the discographies of Bowie, Prince, and A Tribe Called Quest to remember my favorite songs and discover new ones.

So while we lost some greats, we gained a whole slew of seismic, statement-making, indispensable new albums that we will continue to unpack for years to come. Now to my favorites from the year.

Honorable Mention

Anti – Rihanna

We got it from Here… – A Tribe Called Quest

Sunlit Youth – Local Natives

10. Telefone – Noname

noname-telefone

For obvious reasons, introverts seem to be somewhat rare in the pop music sphere. Frank Ocean is one, Kendrick Lamar is probably another. But this year, Noname arrived on the scene in a likably reserved manner with Telefone. Connected to Chance the Rapper’s Chicago crew, her fresh, relaxed, and clear voice draws you in immediately.

The easygoing and breezy production is paired with often devastating content. Amid catchy melodies, Noname paints a melancholy picture of the violence and anxiety of her hometown.  Death may hang over the album (literally on the cover), but Telefone still presents a life-affirming message from an intoxicating new voice.

9. Cardinal – Pinegrove

This is one that I discovered late in the year, but quickly became the album I didn’t know I was missing: an eloquent, unabashedly emotional, alt-country record. On Cardinal, New Jersey band Pinegrove don’t innovate musically as much as they offer youthful intelligence amidst enjoyable rock tunes.

The writing on Cardinal is endlessly engaging and clever. The very first song, “Old Friends,” features the words “labyrinthine” and “solipsistic” — words you don’t stumble upon too often outside academia. However, it’s not just the unconventional use of big words, but how Pinegrove can turn a phrase to articulate the difficulty of expressing oneself (“Apparently my ventricles are full of doubt“).

What’s most amazing about Cardinal is that it is both earnest and laid-back; it’s utterly sincere, but with a sense of perspective. They gloomily ask, “How come every outcome’s such a comedown?” only to turn around and say, “There’s nothing really bad to be upset about“.

8. 99.9% – Kaytranada

Similar to Jamie xx’s In Colour from last year, Montreal producer Kaytranada created a fascinating melting pot of hip-hop, R&B, house, and electronic vibes on 99.9%. Just like its cover, the record features a colorful array of sounds, both bright and dark. Most importantly, it’s never dull and fantastic for studying, writing, and working.

Glowed Up” is probably the standout track, as 2016 breakout star Anderson .Paak flexes over an eerie, atmospheric beat. Each song seems to bring something fresh to the album, though, such as highlights “Got It Good” and “Lite Spots”. In such a competitive year for music, it’s a testament to Kaytranada’s talent that 99.9% was able to make it on so many year-end lists.

7. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth – Sturgill Simpson

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About three minutes into Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, a brave new sonic direction is announced when a burst of horns arrives on the scene. Known previously for his throwback country crooning and trippy, metaphysical musings, Simpson expands and diversifies his sound on his new record.

But he also has a new direction in content as well. With the birth of his first child, Simpson has clearly been given a fresh perspective. On “Keep It Between The Lines,” he commands his son to “Do as I say, don’t do as I’ve done“. On “Brace For Impact,” he advises to “Go out and live a little” and to “Make sure you give a little“. Simpson has always been capable of doling out profound nuggets, but his practical wisdom for his son on A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is the most relatable he’s been.

As a concept album, it all comes together beautifully in a tight nine tracks. There’s a wonderful Nirvana cover, a heartfelt dispatch to his wife, and a “call to arms” against U.S. military propaganda. Simpson’s brave new direction finds him insightful, forthright, and generous.

6. The Life of Pablo – Kanye West

Kanye’s 2016 had its share of highlights and lowlights, to say the least. His wife was robbed at gunpoint, he abruptly ended his tour, and checked himself into the hospital for “temporary psychosis.” He also created The Life of Pablo.

For his seventh solo record, Kanye gave us a glimpse of his messy, visionary album-making process through Twitter and then innovated yet again by continuing to tweak the material post-release. Despite its unfocused nature, The Life of Pablo is a fascinating piece of art that fuses gospel, rap, and R&B together for a wholly unique batch of songs. “Father Stretch My Hands Pt.1” and “Famous” have brilliant, heavily-sampled production that is undercut somewhat by facepalm-worthy Kanye lyrics. Still, the album’s best moments are stunning and vivid, particularly “Ultralight Beam,” which actually has a minimal amount of Kanye but literally sounds like heaven.

Kanye’s strength as an artist has always been about letting us see his vulnerabilities and weaknesses with bracing honesty. The Life of Pablo is in no way Kanye’s best work — it’s overlong and overstuffed — but the musical genius is still there, amid all the messiness. So, in a way, it may be the most Kanye album he’s ever made.

5. Blonde – Frank Ocean

frank-ocean-blond

This is one that will probably take longer to marinate than any other album this year. Like an opaque, impressionistic film, Blonde is a work that demands time and reflection. It feels like there is something transcendent going on, but you can’t quite put your finger on it.

Following the revelatory triumph of 2012’s Channel Orange, Ocean returned with something else entirely. Instead of dense drums, Blonde has almost no percussion. Instead of a fresh twist on R&B, Blonde really has no classifiable genre. Instead of outward storytelling, Blonde tells foggy, personal vignettes. Channel Orange felt immediate and endlessly listenable; whereas Blonde is intimate and airy, but eventually reveals more emotional depth.

It may not be my very favorite from the year, but the future may smile even more fondly on it. If it does, we shouldn’t be surprised. Frank himself told us in the opening track that, “We gon’ see the future first“.

4. Lemonade – Beyonce

How do you top that time you revolutionized the music industry with an overnight surprise release visual album? I guess you come back with another visual album, this time playing with your celebrity in a fascinating way to create a brilliant and deeply personal work. There’s a reason Beyonce is universally beloved; she makes all that look flawless.

Lemonade took us on a journey through disbelief, rage, conviction, and forgiveness. It spans genres, from rock (“Don’t Hurt Yourself”) to country (“Daddy Lessons”) to trap (“Formation”) and more, but it all unifies into a cohesive, compelling whole due to Beyonce’s gravity. While the middle section loses momentum a bit, Lemonade culminates with a bravura three-song finish. Beginning with “Freedom” (Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar’s black empowerment anthem that makes you feel like you could run through a brick wall) leading into “All Night” (a moving tribute to hard-fought love), and ending with “Formation” (one of the defining songs of a fraught 2016).

3. Malibu – Anderson .Paak

Anderson .Paak And Free Nationals Band Live Performance Presented By The Virtual Reality Company

Anderson .Paak dropped his fresh and self-assured sophomore album in January and I’ve been rocking it all the way through the year. Even after countless listens, Malibu feels as personal and pleasurable as ever. “The Bird” and “The Dreamer” bookend the album, acting as intimate insights into Anderson’s life, but there’s also plenty of good times here as well. Like Chance the Rapper, he can fluently and enjoyably alternate between singing and rapping. “Come Down” and “Am I Wrong” glide along effortlessly, mixing R&B, funk, and hip-hop together for an addictive concoction.

I had the good fortune of seeing Anderson at a music festival in September. His swagger is so vibrant and infectious that it’s no surprise his star is rising fast. NxWorries, his side project, also released a record this year called Yes Lawd!, which, in addition to all his guest verses for other artists, only increased Anderson’s ubiquity in 2016.

2. 22, A Million – Bon Iver

I’ve written enough about Justin Vernon and Bon Iver’s outstanding third album 22, A Million already, but I just wanted to add that in a year when pop’s top artists (Beyonce, Kanye, Frank Ocean) were pushing themselves to be better, Justin Vernon was right there with them, forging a remarkably original path.

1. Coloring Book – Chance the Rapper

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Beginning with his curtain-parting entrance on Kanye’s “Ultralight Beam,” 2016 was the year of Chance the Rapper. Then with Coloring Book, the young Chicagoan proved himself to be the heir to pre-808s and Heartbreak Kanye. His outstanding mixtape is so chock-full of radiant joy, gratitude, and wonder that it was impossible to deny Chance’s talent and cultural reach.

One of the great summer albums in recent memory, I continued to spin Coloring Book through the rest of the year. Whether you’re religious or not, Chance’s buoyant portrayal of faith is irresistibly uplifting. He makes a relationship with God the most attractive thing in the world: “When the praises go up, the blessings come down.” He reminds himself that even amidst life’s trials, “I got angels all around me, they keep me surrounded.” He offers timely and Biblical advice in an election year: “Don’t believe in kings, believe in the Kingdom.

And yet, all the optimism and joyousness resonates because of the pain underneath (something he also did well on his previous effort, Acid Rap), which is the secret to Coloring Book‘s brilliance. Chance hails from Chicago, so songs like “Summer Friends,” where he mourns the city’s summer spike in murders, lets us in on Chance’s suffering a little bit. In fact, despite all the victorious trumpets, the quieter moments on this record are just as powerful.

The cover shows Chance’s face as he gazes down at his newborn daughter with a gorgeous pink and red sky in the background. In such a weird year, Chance taught us to be grateful for our blessings and gave us joyful music to return to, even in the not-so-blessed moments.

Top 10 Songs

10) “Cranes in the Sky” – Solange

9) “Feel No Ways” – Drake

8) “untitled 05” – Kendrick Lamar

7) “Summer Friends” – Chance the Rapper

6) “Solo” – Frank Ocean

5) “All Night” – Beyonce

4) “33 ‘GOD'” – Bon Iver

3) “No Problem” – Chance the Rapper

2) “Freedom” – Beyonce feat. Kendrick Lamar

1) “Ultralight Beam” – Kanye West

Justin Vernon’s Noteworthy Activity Between Bon Iver Albums

Justin Vernon playing 22, A Million

The over five-year wait between Bon Iver albums didn’t feel nearly as long as it could have. This is probably because the band’s creative force, Justin Vernon, has kept himself pretty busy since 2011. He was involved in two separate side projects that both put out fantastic records. The past two summers, he’s founded and curated a music festival in his hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Bon Iver played both years at the fest, memorably revealing new material each time.

So when rumors started swirling that Bon Iver had an album coming, my initial reaction wasn’t well, finally. It was more well, that’s a welcome surprise. Back in 2012, Vernon had said the Bon Iver project was “winding it down,” presumably for a long break. With the expectation that no new music was coming, no one was hyping themselves up for another Bon Iver album anytime soon. Plus, Vernon was actually quite active during the intervening years.

This is in stark contrast to the wait for Frank Ocean’s latest album, which, to fervent fans, felt like approximately four decades as opposed to the actual four years since 2012’s masterful Channel Orange. Ocean, a notorious recluse, had teased a new album multiple times, only to keep fans in the dark for years. He rarely made appearances in public and only released a few unfinished songs on his Tumblr (in addition to a few features for other artists). Finally, this past August Ocean returned with not one, but TWO albums, the visual album Endless and his third record Blonde. Ocean came through (and then some), but the four-plus year delay was hell for rabid and impatient fans.

Despite an extra year of hiatus, Bon Iver’s time away didn’t feel the same way. With this in mind and as a kind of companion post to my recent article on their new album, I wanted to run through some of Vernon’s stellar work since Bon Iver, Bon Iver was released in 2011.

The Shouting Matches

After years of constructing gorgeous musical dioramas of profound melancholy and serenity, it was a joy to hear Vernon crack open a craft beer with his buddies and churn out a bunch of bluesy garage-rock tunes. In April 2013, Vernon, drummer Brian Moen, and Phil Cook of Megafaun,  released Grownass Man under the band name The Shouting Matches.

It’s far from groundbreaking; there’s no grand artistic statement here, but it’s fun as all get out. It felt like Vernon was taking a breath and kicking back after Bon Iver’s Grammy-winning whirlwind success. His haunting falsetto was mostly replaced by a relaxed baritone. While Grownass Man wasn’t going to end up on many “Best Of” year-end music lists, it did have its moments. “Gallup, NM” is a 5 and a half minute standout that demands repeated listens.

Volcano Choir

Just a few months later, Vernon would release the second album under his other side project, Volcano Choir. In 2009, the members of Collections of Colonies of Bees (what a mouthful) and Vernon linked up for Unmap, an exceedingly experimental indie rock record. Then, four years later came Repave, a much more accessible, arena-ready effort.

Many have claimed it’s essentially the third Bon Iver album, which isn’t totally off base considering the breathtaking melodies and Vernon’s prominent vocals. Still, each song is either too straightforwardly anthemic or just off-kilter enough that they throw you off the Bon Iver scent.

Over three years later, Repave is immensely underrated. Songs like “Byegone” and “Comrade” are remarkably epic, with crashing drums and cavernous guitars. It’s the kind of music that makes you want to go stare at nature for awhile (shouts to the mesmerizing album artwork). These could almost be U2 jams if Bono’s voice were laid over them. Plus, it’s the perfect length. At eight tracks, it arrests you for just long enough before things turn stale. It’s still a wonder to me how more people, especially Bon Iver fans, don’t know about this album.

(feat. Bon Iver)

It wasn’t just side project bands that kept Vernon busy, but his collaborations with other high profile artists as well. Most notably, Mr. West. Vernon was a key contributor to Kanye’s 2010 maximalist opus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, so it was no surprise when he brought Vernon back in for 2013’s Yeezus. The bleak, hyper-aggressive posturing of that album might not seem a natural fit for the “Skinny Love” guy, but Vernon has a writing credit on three of Yeezus‘ tracks, proving Kanye and Vernon a formidable team yet again.

Another critically acclaimed collaborator was James Blake. The two have worked together for years, but on Blake’s The Colour in Anything, released earlier this year, Vernon is one of only two co-writers on the album (The other? Frank Ocean). Vernon’s name can be found credited on three songs, including a feature on the slow-burner “I Need a Forest Fire”.

Heavenly Father

Come 2014, we were treated to the first new Bon Iver track in three years. “Heavenly Father” was created for Wish I Was Here, Zach Braff’s Kickstarter-funded film. It’s a buzzing, captivating few minutes of music that stands on its own, even without the context of a full album. It was a welcome reminder that Bon Iver could still grab your attention out of nowhere.

Bon Iver Awakens

In the summer of 2015, at his own music festival , Eaux Claires, Vernon awoke the Bon Iver machine for a live performance. In it, they performed two previously unheard songs, stoking speculation that a new record was on the way. The first, which I’ve watched roughly 3,482 times on YouTube, would become “666 ʇ”, the sixth track on 22, A Million. The other, featuring the sister folk trio, The Staves, is unaccounted for on the new album. Hopefully it sees the light of day somewhere down the road.

It turned out we would have to wait a full year for more new tunes. At next year’s Eaux Claires fest, Bon Iver returned and played 22, A Million in its entirety. With the studio version coming out on September 30th, our (not so terrible) wait is over.

Why Bon Iver’s Innovative “22, A Million” Still Feels Like Bon Iver

Bon Iver's album 22, A Million

If you queued up the new Bon Iver songs expecting the serene, quiet folk that catapulted them to indie stardom five-plus years ago, you were probably a bit disoriented upon first listen.

“22 (OVER S∞∞N),” the first of three tracks released before the new album, 22, A Million, drops on September 30th, begins with chipmunk-pitched vocals and no acoustic guitar on the scene. It’s a jarring way for the band to return after five years, to say the least. They are going for fresh sounds and ideas about what a song can be — and subverting their fans’ expectations while they do it. However, despite this Kid A-esque turn, these new songs still somehow feel 100% like the Bon Iver we’ve come to know.

First of all, what’s the deal with these insane, wingding-looking song titles? Numerology and symbols are clearly a main theme of 22, A Million. Each song title features a number and the album cover is cluttered with various, seemingly random symbols: a rainbow, a pyramid, a stuck-out tongue, several crucifixes, an upside down chair. In the letter accompanying the album announcement, Trever Hagen, a friend and collaborator, says “22” represents lead singer and creative mastermind Justin Vernon, while “A Million” represents the rest of the world.

This emphasis on numbers and symbols is new for Vernon, but the effort to find his place in the world, the mission to figure out What It All Means is decidedly not. Since Bon Iver’s first album, For Emma, Forever Ago, when Vernon shut himself away in a Wisconsin cabin for three frigid winter months, he has been attempting to reach for connection with others and the world. (As far as indie origin stories go, it doesn’t get much better than “depressed singer-songwriter emerges from wintry isolation with beautiful melancholy tunes”, does it?). Despite the inherent personal intimacy in Vernon’s music, it has always reached for empathy. As Hagen’s letter says, music is “a pathway to understanding.”

This sentiment is, of course, baked into the lyrical content of the new tunes. Regardless of its strangeness, Vernon’s writing style remains close to what it was in the first two Bon Iver records. In 22, A Million, he continues to mix the banal and everyday with the abstract and esoteric. On “33 ‘GOD'” (33 was Jesus’ age at his death, the song also runs 3 minutes, 33 seconds) he smashes together the line “We find God and religions to” with “Staying at the Ace Hotel”. On “22 (OVER S∞∞N)”, lyrics like “So as I’m standing at the station” share real estate with “There isn’t ceiling in our garden”. The second track on the album, “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⊠ ⊠”, features lines like “Unorphaned in our northern lights” and, my personal favorite, “Fuckified”.

The result are songs that play like sacred memories we don’t have. Just like Bon Iver Bon Iver‘s “Holocene”, where we hear about “That night you played me ‘Lip Parade'”, a memory of Vernon’s that comes right before the soupy obscurity of “Not the needle, nor the thread, the lost decree”, concrete elements of nostalgia are mashed together with mystifying lyrical content. However, it’s the anthemic universal lines that shine the brightest in Bon Iver’s music. On “Holocene”, it’s the refrain, “…And at once I knew I was not magnificent”, where we can all cosign that feeling of insignificance in the face of something far greater than ourselves. “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” begins with “Where you gonna look for confirmation?”, a question of where we all turn for validation and fulfillment.

While that classic Bon Iver lyrical presence remains, the new soundscapes on these tracks are certainly pushing the envelope. Straightforward acoustic folk will probably not be found much on 22, A Million. This is scattered, unconventional, and unpredictable music that doesn’t sound like much else out there today. There’s more electronic influence and way less guitars and drums.

You can kind of hear the Kanye West impact (Vernon has collaborated with Kanye on multiple occasions), especially on the charging, aggressive (for Bon Iver, that is), and enigmatic Yeezus-inspired “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⊠ ⊠”. Another likely area of Kanye’s influence is Bon Iver’s use of samples. While sampling has been popular in hip-hop for decades, you don’t hear it much in other genres, especially as liberally as Bon Iver have sampled other songs here. Unsurprisingly, the choices are wide-ranging, including a country artist from the 50s, a gospel group from the 80s, and a contemporary Scottish singer-songwriter. The most high-profile sampled artist is Stevie Nicks, but Vernon didn’t choose “Edge of Seventeen,” no, he decided to sample from his “favorite YouTube video of all time,” an old clip of her warming up backstage. These samples don’t overwhelm the songs, they simply add texture on the peripheral edges. Either way, it feels like a legitimately innovative move from an indie folk artist.

And yet, even with the fresh sound and all the samples, you can nevertheless hear the recognizable thread of For Emma and Bon Iver, Bon Iver at work. Of course, let’s not forget, there was significant change between Bon Iver’s first and second albums. After the stripped-down success of For Emma, Vernon wrapped his original sound in layers of gorgeous instrumentation for the second record, adding delicate saxophones, trumpets, and strings. Auto-Tune was even used to unusually excellent effect, so Bon Iver is no stranger to innovation and artistic growth. 

On these new tracks, that Bon Iver flavor remains. Lovely piano keys form the base of “33 ‘GOD’,” while what sounds like a banjo enters around the one-minute mark. Early on in “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” a patiently plucked guitar emerges to guide us into the album. Then, thrillingly, a sax solo comes in out of nowhere around the middle of the song. Of course, Vernon’s vocals are at the forefront as usual — that beautifully distinct falsetto, the powerful low register, and the Auto-Tune-enhanced vocal magic; it’s all there.

Right now, it’s uncertain how fans (especially the casual ones) will receive 22, A Million. At first, the new material tends to sound disjointed and colder than the previous two albums. It’s only after a few listens that the songs start to connect and reveal their rewards. The melodies begin to take hold once you get a feel for where the band is going. It’s definitely an exhilarating new direction, but once you listen a little closer, it’s still Bon Iver, after all.

The Big Comeback, Or, My Top 10 Albums of 2015

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I have a Spotify playlist titled “2015 Best Tracks”. It clocks in at around 3 hours and 15 minutes. I also have a Spotify playlist titled “2014 Best Tracks”. That one runs just over 2 hours. This speaks to the kind of bounce-back year music gave us. It’s like Music was coming off an ACL tear that kept it out of commission for most of 2014, only to roar back with Carson Palmer-like numbers in 2015.

I’ll resist making any more sports-music comparisons for the rest of this, but you get my point. After a disappointing year where I only truly loved ONE album, I found an abundance of spectacular music in 2015.

Scan just about any genre and you’ll find standouts. Drake and Kendrick Lamar kicked off the year by trading in-their-prime stunners.  In pop, Adele gracefully returned with her record-breaking 25 and, on a quite smaller scale, Chvrches released another deep and catchy indie pop album. Folk music saw Sufjan Stevens and The Tallest Man on Earth deliver what might be career best efforts — and that’s saying something — while My Morning Jacket’s The Waterfall was at least their best work in a decade. Genre-defying acts like Father John Misty, Tame Impala, and Destroyer followed up wildly praised albums with more greatness.

And to think, we didn’t even get highly anticipated new albums from giants like Kanye West, Frank Ocean, and Macklemore (just kidding). Those will have to wait until 2016, leaving plenty to look forward to. Now to my favorites from this year.

Honorable Mention:

Sound and Color – Alabama Shakes
The Desired Effect – Brandon Flowers
1989 – Ryan Adams

10. Coming Home – Leon Bridges

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Wikipedia tells me he’s 26 from Fort Worth, Texas, but Leon Bridges certainly doesn’t seem like it. Possessing a true throwback gospel/soul sensibility, his first album, Coming Home, came out of nowhere this summer. Sometimes nostalgia-themed acts like Bridges can go awry in a hurry, failing to stand on their own as an artist. No issues here. Bridges clearly knows how to write a meaningful song — “Lisa Sawyer” is about his mother, “River” may be the best spiritually-themed tune of the year — but he also knows how to compose feel-good tracks you can throw on at that summer pool party.

9. Carrie and Lowell – Sufjan Stevens

This was seen as a return to Sufjan Stevens’ roots, and in some ways it was. After the eclectic sounds of The Age of Adz, Stevens hearkens back to his early days with straightforward, soft, and beautiful folk melodies. However, in other ways Sufjan goes deeper on Carrie and Lowell, a heartrending collection of 11 songs mostly about his deceased mother. Eschewing much of the quirky and eccentric humor that he’s known for, this is a remarkably mature and moving record. “Should Have Known Better” and “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” alone make this a standout.

8. I Love You, Honeybear – Father John Misty

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The battle between cynicism and sentimentalism is never an easy one to capture. Father John Misty is probably better at this than any musician working, which is why his music makes me more than a little uncomfortable. His debut, Fear Fun, was excellent, but I Love You, Honeybear surpasses it because of one simple fact: Josh Tillman (aka Father John) fell in love. This turn of events forces the cynical bastard in him to confront this. The self-loathing struggle is something to behold, and it kept me coming back to this one throughout the year.

7. Surf – Donnie Trumpet and The Social Experiment

Chance the Rapper, the most exhilarating young rapper on the scene, co-stars in this collaboration that was released over the summer — which makes sense, since it’s a perfect summer companion. Surf was the most fun I had listening to music all year long. The best track, “Sunday Candy”, is pure sugar. But it’s the wondrous mix of jazz, hip-hop, and R&B that makes this one a fulfilling listen in any season.

6. The Waterfall – My Morning Jacket

From The Waterfall‘s opening notes, you can tell My Morning Jacket is on a higher level than they have been since at least 2005’s Z. The balance they strike between their eccentric indie sensibility and their Allman Brothers-jam band tendency is on the mark. For instance, on the surface “Compound Fracture” is the former, while “Spring (Among the Living)” is the latter, but each song on the album has a mix of what makes MMJ so fantastic.

5. Currents – Tame Impala

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It was always going to be difficult to follow up such an endlessly listenable triumph like 2012’s Lonerism, but Tame Impala went the best possible route. Currents expands their sonic arsenal by mostly replacing those reverb-heavy guitars on their first two albums with a propulsive electronic presence that doesn’t disrupt their psych-pop/rock groove. “Let It Happen”‘s almost 8-minute runtime somehow doesn’t feel over-indulgent at all and you could make the argument that “Eventually” is their best-ever song. They should be a much more popular band than they are at the moment.

4. In Colour – Jamie xx

Besides #1 on this list, I didn’t find anything as musically adventurous as Jamie xx’s In Colour this year. In fact, I’m still finding my way through its cavernous interior. Even those who don’t really go for dance/dubstep/house music (like myself) can appreciate what he’s doing on this record. There’s never a dull moment. “Loud Places” feels like conversing with a loved one just outside a club. “I Know There’s Gonna Be” feels like a relaxed, no-problems summer BBQ. As a whole, Jamie xx has created something that is unique, pleasurable, and awe-inspiring.

3. If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late – Drake

If Surf is the perfect summer record, Drake’s out-of-the-blue “mixtape”  this year was the perfect winter record. From start to finish, this album feels like its thermometer is set to single digits. The minimalist beats on top of Drake’s distinct voice show that he’s truly in the zone right now. This was a left turn away from the R&B-inflected sound we’ve become used to from him, but when such an unconventional song like “Know Yourself” becomes a sensation, you know Drizzy’s feeling it. If a certain other rapper didn’t release anything this year, he would be on top of the hip-hop world.

2. Every Open Eye – Chvrches

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With an uncanny ear for compelling hooks, Chvrches have built a following with catchy synth-pop. That doesn’t change on Every Open Eye, and thank God it doesn’t. Just about every track has you humming the chorus to yourself later in the day. As excellent as their 2013 release The Bones Of What You Believe was, lead singer Lauren Mayberry and Co. have come back even more assured in their craft. The kickstart joy of “Never Ending Circles”, the slow-build-to-explosion of “Clearest Blue”, the melancholic touch of “Down Side Of Me”, it’s all just so well done. Even when things start to feel a little mechanical toward the end, they finish by clearing out the thumping basslines and noisy synths with Mayberry’s crystal-clear tenor on the touching “Afterglow”. Bravo.

1. To Pimp a Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar

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Each and every track on To Pimp a Butterfly deserves its own 2,000-word reflection, so trying to encapsulate, in this small space, why this is my favorite album of 2015 simply can’t be done. Dense, humorous, challenging, complex, and profound only just begin to describe this record. When Kendrick released “i” to the public a few months before this album’s release, many thought he had gone the easy, commercial route. Oh, how very wrong they were. Instead, we were treated to a sprawling masterpiece, both musically and thematically. Jazz, funk, and hip-hop all fuse together on one 16-track stunner, while Kendrick muses on race, class, faith, and personal demons. “Alright” is rightfully seen as the uplifting anthem of 2015, but it’s the internal torment of the preceding song, “u”, that makes the triumph of “Alright” so earned. As for Kendrick, he’s earned every ounce of praise that’s come his way.

Top 10 Songs

10) “Sparks” – Beach House

9) “Lonely Town” – Brandon Flowers

8) “Sunday Candy” – Donnie Trumpet and The Social Experiment

7) “Loud Places” – Jamie xx

6) “What Do You Mean?” – Justin Bieber

5) “Compound Fracture” – My Morning Jacket

4) “Dream Lover” – Destroyer

3) “Should Have Known Better” – Sufjan Stevens

2) “Hotline Bling” – Drake

1) “Alright” – Kendrick Lamar

A Bittersweet Salute to Grantland

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I remember the exact moment I began to care about writing. It was 2009 and the Lakers had just won the NBA championship. Right after the game, I read a fascinating ESPN.com article on Kobe Bryant from a writer named Bill Simmons. With its entertaining tone and fan perspective, it was wholly unique to any sportswriting I had seen before. I was just about to start college, didn’t consider myself a writer, and didn’t have much interest in the subject at all.

The next two years I followed Simmons religiously. Sure, he was an obnoxious Boston fan most of the time, but he was a fun, relatable, and engaging obnoxious Boston fan. When it was announced that ESPN was opening up a Simmons-run site with 70% sports/30% pop culture content, I would say I was cautiously thrilled, if you can be such a thing. It sounded right up my alley, but an entire website of Simmons imitators made me a bit worried. Don’t get me wrong: I love Simmons’ writing, but a whole site of 4,000-word retro diaries and shaky sports-pop culture analogies supplemented by heavy doses of unabashed homerism? That didn’t sound so super.

Now, four-plus years later, my favorite site has shut down. 

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If I had to tally up all of the work/class hours I have spent reading Grantland, I’d be a little embarrassed. From its birth in the summer of 2011 to its death this past Friday, I was hooked. No, it wasn’t a perfect website; it took them some time to find their footing, but, I was all the way in since its first post, where editor-in-chief Bill Simmons wrote that one of Grantland’s goals was “to find writers we liked and let them do their thing.”

Boy, did they. This was a site where you could read a deep-dive into how LaMarcus Aldridge will fit in with the Spurs right next to a “Definitive Ranking” of all the jackets in Star WarsThe smartest thing Simmons ever did was hire a bunch of people who don’t write like he does. Whatever you think of him as a personality or as a writer, the guy knows how to find talent. 

Unsurprisingly, the collective nature of the enterprise was one of the things that will stand out the most in Grantland’s legacy. When several insanely skilled writers all jumped on one blog post — like in their NBA Shootarounds, the Lightning Round takes after a new album or movie trailer release, or the After-Party group posts the morning following the Emmys, Oscars, etc. — it was unlike anything you could find on the Internet. That was some of Grantland’s best stuff… except for a Brian Phillips piece on Federer, FIFA, Messi, sumo wrestling, shark attacks, sunken WWII battleships, and well, just about anything.

For me, Phillips was the Danny Ocean of the group, the guy whose effortless brilliance seemed to consistently outshine everyone else. His longform work, where he gifted readers with poetic, transcendent,  astonishing, and deeply weird pieces on Japan (The Sea of Crises) and the Iditarod, are perhaps my two favorite things to ever go up on Grantland.

That’s not to say the others couldn’t bring it. Andy Greenwald is the most clever and infectious TV writer I’ve read. Alex Pappademas came with fresh, intelligent perspectives on Hollywood, and film in general. Zach Lowe gave us exhaustive and insightful NBA coverage. Bill Barnwell and Robert Mays did the same on the NFL. Molly Lambert wrote in a number of different areas, but I’ll remember her witty and incisive celebrity profiles, as well as her extraordinarily perceptive Mad Men recaps, the most. Steven Hyden arrived more recently than the others, but the former Pitchfork contributor wrote knowledgeably and entertainingly on all things music, past and present. Rembert Browne brought that uncanny ability to merge the endearingly silly with the seriously journalistic, often in the same article. And Chris Ryan could seamlessly transition between the NBA, Premier League soccer, and film/TV analysis with aplomb.

Those are just my personal favorites. There’s countless other writers/editors whose work I thoroughly enjoyed. If you read Grantland daily, you were left astounded by the vast array of style. The other best thing Simmons did besides hiring writers that were unlike him? He allowed them to “do their thing” by straying across subject lines. On the same day, you could find a writer penning an essay on the latest Netflix show and appearing on a group NBA post. I don’t know of any other publication where this happens. Grantland had a deep understanding that people who write well in one area can probably write well in another.

There was this unpretentious combination of high and lowbrow that they pulled of so well. For example, they somehow put together a Paul Thomas Anderson Week and a Rom-Com Week. The engaging reader-voted brackets to decide the Best Tom Cruise or the greatest character from The Wire were acknowledged as the meaningless, yet highly amusing, content that they were. Then there was Oscarmetrics, the hilariously absurd Mad Men Power Rankings, and the NBA Playoffs and March Madness coverage that made those events even more fun to follow.

Of course, Grantland’s podcast network can’t go unmentioned. Any subject you wanted covered had a podcast that irreverently discussed the latest news. The rapport between hosts was obvious, probably because many of them were already familiar before they became Grantland coworkers. After a few listens to the Hollywood Prospectus or Girls in Hoodies, you felt like you were in on the jokes and a part of the circle.

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Time seems to fly by when you look back at a specific moment, like that first Simmons article I read six years ago. Then you realize just how much has happened in that elapsed time. I went from a holding an utter indifference to developing a serious love of writing. Now this blog exists. Now I write about soccer for a living. Now I know writing about sports and pop culture will be something I’ll likely do for the rest of my life. I’d say pretty confidently Grantland was the primary driving force behind this evolution. For the last couple years, my dream job was to write for that site.

What led to Grantland’s death was a mix of corporate politics, a post-Simmons lack of leadership, and its refusal to bend to the substance-free clickbait online culture to drive traffic. In the many eulogies across the web, you got the sense that Grantland’s influence had a wider reach than anybody thought. Its loss will be felt, but the talent is still out there to create something similar in the future — although its brilliance will be tough to match. We got four-plus years of thought-provoking, entertaining as hell, and routinely exceptional words on sports and culture.

I call this a bittersweet salute because I’m embittered and dejected seeing Grantland die. Still, I’m sentimental and grateful I ever saw it live.

40 Years Since “Born to Run”, Springsteen is Still Everywhere

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Earlier this year, we passed the 40th anniversary of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run”. Even those who don’t have much Heartland rock on their Spotify have to admit it’s one of the great rock records ever. For my money, it’s one of the greatest albums of all-time, full stop. But I’m not here to talk about Born to Run, as much as I want to.

I’m here because it seems like Springsteen is having a moment in 2015. From younger musical acts borrowing his sound to TV shows lacing their soundtrack with his music, The Boss has been everywhere recently. Now, Springsteen is an American cultural touchstone, so his influence is going to shape music for a very long time. It’s possible he is always in the spotlight to this degree and I’m only realizing it now because I’ve been listening to so much of his catalog lately. That’s entirely possible.

However, I can’t shake that everywhere I look, Springsteen’s shadow is cast. Back in March of 2014, The War on Drugs released Lost in a Dream, their meditative, alluring masterpiece. More than a few publications immediately detected obvious strands of Springsteen in the album’s DNA. That steady drum beat, those cathartic highs, the sudden urge to jump on a highway and drive through the middle of Nebraska with it on repeat. All of it’s there. Fortunately, The War on Drugs have enough ideas of their own to avoid direct mimicry, but they clearly owe a debt to The Boss.

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Lost in a Dream set the stage for a 2015 chock-full of Springsteen references. When it was announced that Ryan Adams would be covering Taylor Swift’s immensely popular 1989, I couldn’t wait to see how he would handle straight pop smashes like “Shake It Off” and “Blank Space”. When his covers album dropped, it all made total sense when he went the Springsteen route, the original being an 80s-inflected album and all. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Adams said he thought to himself, “Let me record 1989 like it was Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska“. This is exactly why so many were excited to hear his take on the pop star’s work.

If you’ve never heard Nebraska, it’s unlike any other vintage Springsteen album, in that Born to Run makes you want to jump on the nearest table and sing your lungs out, while Nebraska makes you want to curl up on the sofa for a sad nap. It’s mainly an acoustic journey through various down-on-their-luck characters. The E Street Band’s usual contributions — those bouncy piano chords, those muscular drums, that blaring saxophone — are all stripped away. Adams treated “Blank Space” and “Shake It Off” similarly, taking out the pop sheen and cutting the tempo in half. I don’t think he necessarily improved on either track, but he gave them his own Springsteenian spin.

For “Shake It Off”, he seemed to borrow a sound from “I’m On Fire”, the fourth single off Springsteen’s 1984 Born in the U.S.A., one of the highest selling records ever. The smoldering track moves at an even pace, but you’re convinced he’s about to break into a frenzied crescendo, a chorus with which you can shout along. It never comes, making the song even more memorable. In the same way, Adams slows down Swift’s glossy, defiant tune until it’s just burning embers on a fire about to go out. Utilizing this style, it doesn’t even sound that ridiculous when Adams sings “players gonna play / haters gonna hate”.

Around the same time Adams released 1989, Destroyer, a Canadian indie group, put out Poison Season, their tenth album. An unlikely candidate to use Springsteen as inspiration, the second track on the album, “Dream Lover”, sounds like (minus the lyrics) it could’ve been pulled directly from any ’70 or ’80s Springsteen and the E Street Band record. It has that hard-charging anthemic quality to it, with that heavy sax and loud drums. However, lead singer’s Dan Bejar’s voice is such the opposite of Bruce’s Man’s Man tenor that it’s a little disorienting. Other tracks on the record, like the excellent “Times Square”, have a vague whiff of The Boss as well. Hell, there’s even a song titled “The River“. Another instance of an artist using Springsteen’s influence to create their own original work.

This has even spread to TV this year. When Jon Stewart, host of “The Daily Show” since 1999, waved his goodbye in the fantastic final episode, guess who was there to play him off. Now, Stewart grew up in New Jersey, Springsteen’s home state, so it was no shock that Stewart brought him in to blast “Born to Run” for his farewell. Still, seeing Springsteen up there for one of the more significant TV moments in recent memory made perfect sense for a year in which I had encountered him everywhere.

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Finally, I’ll end with a miniseries that used him so overtly, and with such frequency, that it almost tipped over into obsessive fandom. “The Wire” creator David Simon’s HBO miniseries “Show Me a Hero” basically kept Bruce on in the background throughout all six hours. This being a show set in late-80s Yonkers, New York, it’s not difficult to envision our main character, mayor Nick Wasicsko, as a Springsteen superfan. “Gave It a Name“‘s ruminative guitar opens the first episode, “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” plays over Wasicsko fixing up his house, and Simon even throws in “Secret Garden” during a tender moment, despite its prominent use in that little-seen 1996 picture, Jerry Maguire.

“Show Me a Hero” is a gritty and true-to-life series, sometimes depressing, other times cathartic. Kind of like Springsteen’s music, which makes him the perfect soundtrack for such a show.

There’s plenty of unfortunate aspects about living in the Music Streaming Age (especially for current artists), but one of the positives is that we can go back through older artists’ discographies at will. If I get really into Fleetwood Mac, I don’t have to go digging around for an old copy of Rumours. I can just cue it up on Spotify. This means we can get familiar with music from the past in a way we were never previously capable of, which helps us understand today’s music on a deeper level.

Like I said, I’m not sure if Springsteen is having a moment in 2015 or if I’m just recognizing more the effect his wake is having on current artists’ boats. Either way, forty years on from the moment he burst into the mainstream, a 66-year-old from Jersey continues to find strands of his work in all kinds of culture.

Consensus Amongst a Lack of Quality, Or, My Top 10 Albums of 2014

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I’ve always found music to be the most subjective art form. It just does weird things to people, like make you follow around Dave Matthews Band for an entire summer or spend insane amounts of money to be front row at an NSYNC concert – neither of which I’ve done, but both things I would’ve agreed to do in a heartbeat at a certain age. No shame.

Anyway, music’s subjectivity is rooted in the fact that we can’t see it; it’s intangible, immaterial, spectral. Because of this, people can have widely different opinions about what constitutes Great Music. Every person you know has their favorite genre of music and a genre they couldn’t care less about. Country fans may despise hip-hop, and vice versa. Or if you enjoy both of those, maybe you can’t stand metal. It’s difficult to find consensus among music fans, even diehard ones. This year in film, everyone loved Boyhood. Rarely is there an album that unites critics and the public like that. Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the last one I can remember.

So I was surprised when most of the “Best Of 2014” music lists struggled to find a consensus favorite. It was a year relatively weak at the top and, in my opinion, weak all around. Usually I have a lengthy list of albums to consider for my favorites of the year. With so many spectacular artists sitting this one out, it was much shorter in 2014. Even with a roster that wasn’t particularly strong, top-heavy, or deep (think of the dreadful Oakland Raiders this season), this doesn’t mean we were totally bereft of quality tunes.

In making my list, I found that (as usual) my tastes were hit or miss with music critics. So, a necessary disclaimer: There was quite a bit of fantastic and buzz-worthy music I didn’t get around to this year. The following are my personal favorites from 2014 that I did get to.

Two That Just Missed Out:

Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams

You’re Dead – Flying Lotus

  1. Sukierae – Tweedy

Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy fashioned this 20-track effort with his teenage son on drums, thus taking on all of those “Wilco is dad-rock” claims. Just brilliant. What’s more likely is that the Tweedys simply love to play, and you can tell here. Sukierae doesn’t break any fresh ground musically, but it does churn out highly listenable songs at a remarkable clip. You get some of that signature off-kilter Wilco feel, but more often than not, the Tweedys just treat us to some solid, straightforward songwriting.

  1. Range of Light – S. Carey

Bon Iver bandmate S. Carey has a genteel vibe to him, but he allows his music to expand and shake and crescendo at the right moments on Range of Light. Carey’s falsetto is excellent (although not quite as powerful as Justin Vernon’s) and he uses it to great effect here, especially on standouts like “Crown the Pines” and “Apenglow”. His soft, folk-y sound sometimes hugs a little too closely to Bon Iver (go figure), but the intimacy and ambition shown here has me excited for his future.

  1. Turn Blue – The Black Keys

It’s not that I disliked The Black Keys’ last record, El Camino. It’s more that I came away concerned their future would consist of a release every few years that sounded just like the one before it. Turn Blue didn’t exactly light the world on fire, but it did show us that The Black Keys were interested in expanding at least a little. The psychedelic (opener “Weight of Love” features a guitar solo we are unaccustomed to hearing the Keys go for), introverted stylistic leanings on this album added a layer to the band that I found promising.

  1. Singles – Future Islands

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Like most people, the Letterman performance is where I first took notice of them. And thank God, because who knows if Future Islands’ excellent Singles would have entered my view. Yes, “Seasons” is potentially the song of the year, but the album is more than just its single. “A Song For Our Grandfathers” and “A Dream of You and Me” are knockouts that stand on their own.

  1. Metamodern Sounds in Country Music – Sturgill Simpson

That voice. It’s what draws you into Simpson immediately. You just don’t hear country artists croon like that anymore. You also don’t really hear existential songwriting like this – well, anywhere. I’m not really sure where this tormented soul came from, but he’s welcome to stay on the scene. The best part about Simpson’s record is that it just doesn’t simply ape Waylon, Merle, and the rest; he brings his own acid-infused style to this old-fashioned, soon-to-be country classic.

  1. Are We There – Sharon Van Etten

“Your Love is Killing Me” is Lana Del Rey surrounded by an Ennio Morricone score. “Our Love” sounds more like Feist. “You Know Me Well” has a foreboding slow burn to it. What sets Sharon Van Etten apart is her idiosyncratic sensibility under that wonderfully versatile voice. This is a dark album that somehow finds the light in little moments, like the final track “Every Time the Sun Comes Up”. It’s a failure on my part that I hadn’t heard this crazy talented artist before this year.

  1. They Want My Soul – Spoon

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Spoon may be one of the most consistent rock bands in recent history. Since the late 90s, these guys have been pumping out an above average album every few years. After going low-fi on 2010’s Transference, this record was created to be played over your car speakers, loudly. Is it their masterpiece? It’s not – I would submit 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga takes that honor. However, They Want My Soul finds Spoon comfortable going a littler louder this time.

  1. Seeds – TV On The Radio

TV On The Radio’s 2011 album Nine Types of Light got a bad rap. Fans were disappointed, but it made me take notice. In fact, even after going back to their old stuff, I still preferred it. I know, not exactly a True Fan’s Take, but after Seeds, it became clear to me that TV On The Radio is just better when they make pop-ier music, like “Could You” and “Careful You”. As usual, no matter the style they aren’t afraid to embrace big, full-hearted emotion. It’s amazing to me these guys aren’t more mainstream.

  1. Atlas – Real Estate

If you have a laid-back (read: lazy) streak in you sometimes, Real Estate could speak to you. When they released Days in 2011, I was hooked instantly. After wearing out the play button on that one, I eagerly awaited the arrival of Atlas. Without overhauling their music, Real Estate made the right subtle choices to create a more mature record this time. Filled with themes of loneliness, insecurity, and the difficulty of communicating in relationships, they didn’t avoid weightier thoughts in the midst of their breezy aesthetic.

  1. Lost in the Dream – The War on Drugs

20111209TheWarOnDrugsPhotoBySamanthaWest

I wrote about it awhile back after listening to it nonstop for months. After a few more months, it has only grown more at home in my mind. Even in a weak year for music, you can find something that will stand the test of time.

Top 10 Songs:

10) “Eyes to the Wind” – The War on Drugs

9) “i” – Kendrick Lamar

8) “Your Love is Killing Me” – Sharon Van Etten

7) “Never Catch Me (feat. Kendrick Lamar)” – Flying Lotus

6) “Careful You” – TV on the Radio

5) “Crime” – Real Estate

4) “Inside Out” – Spoon

3) “0 To 100/The Catch-Up” – Drake

2) “Seasons” – Future Islands

1) “Red Eyes” – The War on Drugs

On the Endlessly Rewarding Album from The War on Drugs

The War on Drugs

It’s mid-September and I already know my album of the year. Actually, I’ve probably known this since it came out in March. I have no idea how many times I’ve listened to The War on Drugs’ sprawling opus Lost in the Dream in the last several months, but it’s countless. Every chord change, piano melody, and vocal flourish has been grooved into my brain at this point. It’s so very rare that I wear out the play button on an album from a band that I had never heard of before.

The War on Drugs hail from Philadelphia and had released two albums before Lost in the Dream. Their previous effort, Slave Ambient, won them some acclaim but didn’t make them much of a known commodity outside of serious indie rock circles. Their latest record was borne out of the break-up of frontman Adam Granduciel’s long-term relationship. Many of the songs have themes of loneliness, depression, and hardship, but this is not a straight downer of an album. “Eyes to the Wind” features the lyric, “I’m just bit run down here at the moment / Yeah, I’m all alone here, living in darkness”, which, okay, that sounds downer-ish, but it’s skillfully contrasted with an upbeat, swinging folk-rock jam.

The-War-On-Drugs-Lost-In-The-Dream-608x608

It’s difficult to sort out exactly how to classify The War on Drugs’ sound. This album has a compelling alchemy of indie rock/folk, Americana, psychedelia, and even alt-country sounds swirling from it. Consequence of Sound classifies the music on Lost in the Dream as “hypnotic heartland”. I would say that’s an accurate depiction, considering the pace does seem designed to lull you into some kind of stupor and the pure sonic expanse immediately makes you think of a flat Midwest horizon.

In fact, it’s extremely train-like, with its constant forward motion and determination. This aspect makes it wonderful running music. I’m quick to put this album on if I’m in the middle of a particularly long run, because it allows you to almost zone out and keep moving comfortably, as opposed to the hard-charging, relentless, and tiring beats of the EDM and dubstep so many work out to today.

The War on Drugs shift in and out of a Zen-like state with ease. Subtle shifts in some of these tracks reveal a band that loves both intricacy and momentum. At several moments [“Suffering” (2:50), “An Ocean” (1:50), “Eyes to the Wind” (1:16)] you can hear the songs ever so slightly drive into a higher gear. Of course, you don’t really hear those moments without repeated listens which is what makes it so rewarding. There are very few albums over the last few years – and probably ever – that I have given this much time.

There are many reasons why, but Granduciel’s voice is one of them. At first, I thought he sounded like a Tom Petty impersonator and his music aped too much of Springsteen’s discography. Over time it became clear that, while they certainly have their influences, The War on Drugs are out to create their own voice. Granduciel’s lyrics can verge on the depressed and jaded, but he never sounds defeated. He has a haunting conviction in his voice that surges at just the right moments before a song takes off. A good example occurs in “Red Eyes”, the undisputed single and the record’s most accessible track, when he twice lets loose a “wooh!” that rips open the song, utterly transforming its shape.

These are the electric and life-affirming moments on Lost in the Dream that set it apart. Most of the tracks run past the 6-minute mark, usually a tell-tale sign for a bloated, overlong album, but the ten songs on here never feel like they drag. Even alongside the brutally honest songwriting, there is an existential, searching quality to the music that lifts it up from the throes of sadness and confusion; it becomes increasingly transcendent the more you listen to it. It’s impossible to believe another album will come out in the rest of 2014 that will top it.

A Perhaps Unnecessarily Comprehensive Attempt to Finally Like Radiohead

Radiohead

Ever since I found myself listening to and searching out more obscure, weirder, and “critically accepted” music (right around the end of high school for me; I was not one of the cool kids into Death Cab back in the day), I always felt like Radiohead was a band I should love. As one of the most successful and celebrated groups of the last 25 years, they serve as almost a rite of passage for any music enthusiast. Which Radiohead album is the best? Which is your favorite? Which was the most groundbreaking? That’s how the conversation goes among most music critics. As a fan of indie and alt-rock, I’ve gotten into many different bands – some critically praised, others not. So it would make sense for me to really enjoy Radiohead, or at the very least, hold them up as a demigod of indie rock. The problem is that I’ve never understood the endless praise.

Their two seminal, game-changing albums, OK Computer and Kid A, have never inspired much admiration or even interest to seek out more of their work. I’ve found most of their music chilly, impersonal, and at worst, just plain boring. To sum it up, Radiohead’s music has never moved me in any significant way. When it comes to huge British rock bands of the past 20 years, I actually prefer Coldplay. I get it, Coldplay > Radiohead = Music Fan’s Suicide, but I’ve always been more drawn to the swelling, accessible arena pop-rock of Chris Martin and Co. over Radiohead’s incoherent, art-rock ramblings. Yes, that’s oversimplifying it. Radiohead have proven they can do excellent pop songwriting and Coldplay have proven they can pull off a darker, more challenging sound. My point stands, though: I’ll take Coldplay’s gorgeous, if slightly saccharine, melodies most days. As any fan of theirs will tell you, Radiohead are the better band. But Coldplay became the bigger one, perfecting some of the former’s early sounds.

However, perhaps I haven’t given them a fair shake. Maybe I’m just missing something, or maybe I need more exposure to them. With this in mind, I decided to run through every one of their studio albums, listening to them at least twice. Would I come out the other side of this lengthy excursion converted enough to begin worship at the Radiohead Altar? Or would it simply be an exercise in self-fulfilling prophecy? Well, if you want to rip on something as “overrated” or whatever, at least know what you’re talking about, right? I tried to go in with as open a mind as possible and see what I could find.

Pablo Honey, 1993

Radiohead's Pablo Honey

Radiohead supporters seem to pretend that they appeared fully formed out of the ether, pure and untouched by music that came before them. In reality, their influences are both obvious and wide-ranging: U2, Pink Floyd, the Smiths, and R.E.M. are most clearly among them. This isn’t a bad thing; every artist needs predecessors before them to help shape their art. However, acting like Radiohead have always been a paragon of originality is a bit misguided. I mean, their band name comes from the title of a Talking Heads song.

Oh right, I forgot I was supposed to be discussing Radiohead’s debut, Pablo Honey. This is probably because it is a mostly forgettable album. Many great bands’ debut at least gives you a good sense of where their future genius comes from – not Radiohead. It’s just a straightforward 90s alt-rock record with one truly great, lasting hit. This may be the one Radiohead song you can name, and probably for good reason. “Creep” was a smash back then and it has actually aged really well. The guitar riff before the chorus still arrests you in a way that most music just can’t

Pablo Honey came out two years after Nirvana’s landscape-shifting, breakthrough debut, Nevermind. This period was fertile ground for these post-punk, alternative artists, but Radiohead only finds their stride on “Creep” here. The rest is one mediocre alt-rock jam after the next; not much to separate them from the pack.

The Bends, 1995

Radiohead's The Bends

It would be The Bends that marked their first album-length success. From the ear-catching opening sounds of “Planet Telex” to the soft, folk-rock of “High and Dry” to the gorgeous “Bulletproof”, The Bends is far and away their most consistent, accessible record. Many songs have that classic 90s-style alt-rock hook to them (which is the last time they would do that), but the album lifts above the fray with its occasional subtly haunting instrumentation. This is more than “Nirvana-lite”, as many have called their early work. It’s a fully realized rock album, one of the best of the decade.

Going into this project, I would’ve told you The Bends is my favorite Radiohead album. This wasn’t a ready-made hipster answer to deflect any who think I only listen to their popular stuff; it was just the only album I found truly worthwhile.

It can go from quiet and airy [“(Nice Dream)”] straight into loud rockers (“Just”) without losing its larger structure. It can break out the template for future soft rock anthems (“High and Dry”, “Fake Plastic Trees”), while sticking the landing on gloomy and haunting beauties “Bullet Proof” and “Street Spirit”. 1995 was back when they still rocked out in a conventional manner, particularly on “My Iron Lung”, which, although one of the weaker tracks, gives the record some jolting forward motion. All in all, it was a natural progression from straightforward alt-rock to the fussier, artier arrangements they would move on to.

OK Computer, 1997

Radiohead's OK Computer

Considered one of the greatest rock albums ever, my first experiences with OK Computer were less than impressive. The few times I had listened to it before now had left me writing it off as dreary and sleepy. However, more listens have yielded more rewards. These few times around, I started to see the strains of greatness that everyone has raved about. “Airbag” starts it out well, even if the last couple minutes stray too far into noisy art-rock. As different an album as it is, “Let Down” and “Karma Police” could conceivably be found on The Bends. The closest thing to a standout OK Computer has is the latter, which is still one of their most recognizable songs.

There are moments that keep me from considering it one of the best albums ever though. “Electioneering” is woefully out of place here, and is an awful start to the second half of the album. Also, I realize it’s a concept album but the interlude “Fitter Happier” does not need to be two minutes long to get its point across.

Still, the back half houses the wistful, excellent “No Surprises” and the daunting guitar on “Lucky”, both of which make sure this album gets back on track. The closer, “The Tourist”, is a suitably contemplative ending, with lead singer Thom Yorke pleading with us to “slow down”. The “man vs. machine” rhetoric of OK Computer actually doesn’t get too preachy though, and I’m sure the lyrical content was quite ground-breaking in 1997. While my appreciation has grown for this album, I still find it hard to really get my arms around it. It’s a little too willfully difficult to embrace as a touchstone of modern music making.

Kid A, 2000

Radiohead's Kid A

If I found OK Computer too thorny, then you would think the more experimental, electronic Kid A would have the feel of a cactus. Actually, not entirely. This album probably has the largest variation of hit-or-miss for me. “The National Anthem” has that legendary, straight sinister bass line that will catch any music lover’s attention. “How to Disappear Completely”, on the other hand, is solitary, reflective, and eerie. It’s a pitch-perfect mix of natural and electronic instrumentation that Yorke considers the most beautiful song they’ve ever made. “Optimistic” is another standout.

Unfortunately, there are downers on this record that keep it from reaching the heights it could otherwise. Right from the start, you know it’s going to be a different kind of sound, and that sound is mostly electronic with minimal guitar. Now, Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood has one of the best ears for those sweet riffs, but they are fewer and further between on Kid A. “Treefingers” is spare to a fault and the drony, uneventful “Idioteque” doesn’t do the back half of the album any favors.

Through all of this up and down, “Motion Picture Soundtrack” is a classy finish that lends a sonically wondrous conclusion to an album that has long been considered a game-changer. In my few previous Kid A listens years ago, I thought that there wasn’t much there to make me want to keep listening. That was harsh, as Kid A harbors plenty of quality musical nuggets that you just have to dig a bit to find.

Amnesiac, 2001

Radiohead's Amnesiac

A year later came Amnesiac, which worked as a kind of pseudo-B-side to Kid A. The songs came out of the same recording session, but some fans swear by Amnesiac. It was probably the Radiohead album that was most unknown to me, so I thought maybe I would find something special. What I found was remarkably experimental and erratic, even for Radiohead. The enjoyable and/or captivating parts of the group are there, they’re just extremely spotty on Amnesiac.

The second track, “Pyramid Song”, has a strings section that forces you to recognize their ability to surprise with unpredictably pleasant melodies. “Life in a Glasshouse” closes the album with an interesting, jazzy departure from anything they’ve done before. These songs, as well as “Knives Out”, are the undisputed highlights you get out of a collection of Radiohead songs.

On the other hand, this is Radiohead in a mode that I can’t fully get behind. The other tracks are experimental and avant-garde to a fault, particularly “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” and “Dollars and Cents”. Then there is Thom Yorke’s vocals; which, if I’m being honest, may be at least part of my past issues with the group. His soft, fragile, morose falsetto obviously does it for some people, but I’ve never been in that camp. On Amnesiac, his voice sounds more cracked, almost weaker than ever before. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t draw me in; it pushes me away.

Mostly stripped down with hardly any guitars, Amnesiac’s sound is so difficult to grasp onto, even if you enjoy “difficult” music. While it has a few high points, most of Amnesiac unfortunately comes out sounding like what it likely began as: a poor man’s Kid A.

Hail To The Thief, 2003

Radiohead's Hail to the Thief

Two years later, Hail To The Thief wasn’t a poor man’s Amnesiac, as much as it was its angrier, more paranoid brother. Clearly put off by the United States and United Kingdom’s war on terror, Radiohead set out to make a more obvious political album. Apparently, they recorded it in just two weeks, and unfortunately, I think that shows. Hell, the name of the record sounds like a hastily-thrown-together anti-Bush protest sign in 2003.

It’s sonically expansive, sure, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an interesting listen. With hardly any standout tracks, you better hope the overall feeling of the album moves people. For me, this was not the case. The problem could be that I’m starting to figure out that I enjoy guitar-centric Radiohead more than any other version of the band. Guitarists Greenwood and Yorke’s rangy melodies and riffs are my favorite part of Radiohead, and those are too rare on Hail To The Thief.

Side note: It’s also amazing how the more you listen to them, the more you realize how ridiculous all the comparisons with Coldplay are. Not because they are heads and shoulders above them, but because post-OK Computer their sounds aren’t even that similar anymore, if they were even all that similar from the start.

Anyway, the guitars only get a chance to break out during the spooky, charging “Where I End and You Begin” and album highlight “There, There” (which features the lyric, “Just because you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there”. An early nod to WMDs in Iraq, perhaps?). While overall Hail To The Thief ended up straying away from didacticism (thank goodness), it also missed their intended mark of paranoia-fueled, minimalist sounds of dread and angst, which fall flat more than they pack a convicting punch.

In Rainbows, 2007

Radiohead's In Rainbows

About 40 seconds into In Rainbows, an intricate guitar lick comes in and I knew I would enjoy this album more than their last few. Somehow I had never listened to it before, or even heard many of the songs. I was a junior in high school when this one came out and can remember a select group of my classmates losing their minds about it. Even though In Rainbows is one of my favorite versions of Radiohead (second, behind The Bends), I wouldn’t say its greatness totally warranted my peers’ reaction back then.

“15 Step” and “Bodysnatchers” grab your attention in a positive way, introducing you to a Radiohead that functions as a whole band, and has no qualms about that. Instead of a sound that comes across as Yorke fooling around by himself (as Amnesiac and Hail to the Thief sometimes sounded), this record lets the drums bang and guitars rip loose. There is still the classic indie restraint, however. “Faust Arp” is a straightforward strings and acoustic number that shows off Radiohead’s “pretty” side. Piano-heavy pseudo-ballad “Videotape” is a worthy, if almost sentimental, way to conclude the album. It’s an emotional finish that ends this occasionally epic trip with a timely whimper, instead of a bang.

The negatives on In Rainbows are much harder to find. The sleepy “House of Cards” is overlong, but still more bearable than their weaker tracks on other records. Many of these songs start quiet and have a gradual build about them – something I’m always a sucker for. Album standout “Reckoner” doesn’t do much of this, but it does sit perfectly as the mid-album stunner. The foreboding, melancholy guitar-drums combination moved me like almost no other track of theirs ever has. Pitchfork put it well in their review when they remarked that Radiohead had “embrace(d) their capacity for uncomplicated beauty”. I would absolutely agree. This is a Radiohead that is less fussy and more accessible than they have been since The Bends, and it had to be a nice break from the experimental side for even their most ardent fans.

 The King of Limbs, 2011

Radiohead's The King of Limbs

You’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but the album cover to The King of Limbs gave me the impression that it would not be my favorite. The drugged-out aesthetic had turned me off before I got started, but album opener “Bloom” kept me intrigued. It’s a scattered, moody, atmospheric track that doesn’t announce too easily what the rest of the album will sound like. While they can usually always be described as all three of those, the members of Radiohead went for a spaced-out and unpredictable style on The King of Limbs. Half of me wanted to nap to it, and the other half wanted to sort out its greater mysteries.

The next few songs after “Bloom” don’t exactly have you pining for repeat listens. “Little By Little” and “Feral” have an interesting, uneven percussion, but never really take off into something better. The crazy time signature shifts continue into the more normal-sounding “Lotus Flower” and the drowsy, piano-driven “Codex”. “Give Up the Ghost” and “Separator” closes out The King of Limbs without much fanfare, but when have these guys ever been known to revel in that?

This album is actually the rare case where the back half may be better than the front, which is a comparison Radiohead almost seem to welcome considering the first four songs are significantly more jagged than the smoother final four. Still, most fans have seen this as a disappointment following the success of In Rainbows. It’s not hard to see why when this effort comes in at 37 minutes, a length that resides ambiguously between an EP and an LP. This could actually be the one album when it makes sense to compare them to Coldplay, whose most recent record, Ghost Stories, was a 40ish-minute downer that was devoid of much excitement. Both of these albums just seem like “minor” records in the grand scheme.

This is probably because Radiohead have tired of the rigors of the album-making process, which they have commented on in the past. The King of Limbs seems almost like a halfway effort that gave the fans more music, but didn’t even attempt to reach the heights of previous triumphs.

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Several hours of listening and almost 2,800 words later, what have I learned about my view of Radiohead? In true copout fashion, I would say it’s still evolving. Hear me out, though. Many of my previous hangups with them were confirmed. Throughout much of their discography, I encountered the chilly and impersonal sound I had always expected. Some of it may be well-made and even beautiful, but that alone doesn’t give me a connection to it.

Many have compared their music to the films of the great director Stanley Kubrick. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and others, he introduced American audiences to cold, calculated, and gorgeous cinema. He was considered a master, even if some accused his films as emotionless, and thus, lifeless. They may have a chilly atmosphere to them, but those movies have plenty of life in them. Something more than their external beauty draws me in. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about Radiohead. After this eight-album trip, I still find it almost impossible to completely love and adore their music. Certain areas it’s too knotty, others it’s too placid, and not much about it transcends time and space like it does for so many of their fans.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t come upon newfound appreciation. My respect for OK Computer has grown rapidly, and although they certainly have albums I don’t care much for, I was able to find individual gems among Amnesiac, Hail to the Thief, and The King of Limbs. Finally, In Rainbows is a new record that I will be spinning several more times to get a good feel for.

So, are they my new favorite band? Um, no. Do I still think they are the most overrated band of the past 25 years? Absolutely not. Radiohead – despite being a group my personal tastes don’t fully mesh with – have inspired countless artists that I enjoy today. If anything, I have to appreciate that.