With this installment, we’re living almost entirely in the bubble of late 90s/early 2000s white people rock. And the one major exception is a Velvet Underground track that in many ways could count as the first mover of the wave that would finally crest a few decades later. Basically, like I said at the start: I make no claim to objective valuation here. This is just the stuff I love.
80. Spectacular Views – Rilo Kiley (2002)
It’s a huge, overwhelming song – an anthem built out of fireworks and smiles. It’s the wide-eyed innocence of youth, the certainty that everything is still possible, and all you can say is “It’s so fucking beautiful!” And in that moment, everything in the universe makes sense. That’s just all there is to it.
79. Stephanie Says – The Velvet Underground (1968)
The simplest, most beautiful song from a band that radically redefined the genre of simple, beautiful songs.
78. Parking Lot – The Coathangers (2007)
Sleater-Kinney meets The Replacements. With one of the all-time great rock and roll screams.
77. Stay – Lisa Loeb (1994)
The first song to ever hit #1 before the artist had signed a record contract. It’s a quintessential bite of the mid-90s, with a perfectly blended mix of earnest and world-weary that made it fit so perfectly into Reality Bites. Loeb sings with a breathlessness that makes each sentence bleed into the next, and conveys precisely how it feels when the world seems to be spinning out of control. It’s also got a wonderful bit of self-referentiality in “I turned the radio on, I turned the radio up, and this woman was singing my song” – which is precisely what happened for all those who fell in love with this song once it hit the radio.
76. Three Rounds and a Sound – Blind Pilot (2008)
It takes a lot of guts to write a song whose mission statement is to become an ‘our song.’ But it works because they understand something that’s so often missed in the endless parade of love songs that march across our speakers each year. And that is: the single most romantic thing anyone can ever say is “you know me.” There’s beauty in the world, laughter, support, care. But it all comes down to this. I know you, and you know me, and that’s what it really means to be in love.
75. Graceless – The National (2013)
Berninger’s distinctively smoky voice, the tightly wound guitar lines, and above all that insistent drumming. And when it all comes together, it is sheer perfection. The final minute or so is absolutely, relentlessly good.
74. Zolpidem – The Sinister Turns (2006)
Beautiful, funny, intelligent, and full of enough pop charm to make the even the hardest heart blush. It’s irresistible in the way only the very best songs can manage – where you can hear two seconds and instantly need to listen to the whole thing.
73. Untrustable Part 2 (About Someone Else) – Built to Spill (1997)
One of several songs on this list with a wonderfully precise observation about the nature of God (in this case it’s “God is whoever you’re performing for,” which is both brilliant and succinct). Built to Spill were at their best in the late 90s and this song is the peak—stately, sprawling, and stunning.
72. Fake Plastic Trees – Radiohead (1995)
Radiohead went on to make a number of incredibly important records, which played a significant role in shifting the trajectories of what rock music could mean going into the 21st century. And I’m glad for it all. But still…a part of me laments that they never dug down into this well again. It’s not groundbreaking, by any stretch of the imagination. It’s just a gorgeous melody, ringing with the perfect clarity of a brand new dawn.
71. Grace Cathedral Hill – Decemberists (2002)
It glows like the porchlight of a house in the woods in the deep mist of a cold evening. The Decemberists were always at their best making dreamy-chamber-pop, and never more than on this track. I still am blown away by the simple beauty of: “are you feeling better now?”
A bunch of love songs today, which run the gamut from the utterly specific to the transcendent.
90. Crimson And Clover – Tommy James & The Shondells (1968)
That descending guitar riff that closes out each line of the song is like manna falling from the heavens.
89. Take On Me – A-Ha (1985)
The 80s were a grim decade in many ways, musically not being the least among them. But one thing it provided was a backbone of delightful dance music, which could be universally enjoyed without thereby being forced into a lowest common denominator drabness. Take On Me is one of the finest examples of this effect. It’s pop music precisely the way it should be done—a simple chord structure that speaks directly to the heart, with a surprisingly complex underlying melodic system that stands up to decades of close listening. The result is a song that sounds as fresh now as it did in 1985.
88. World Tour (Weezy, Wale, Dre) – Brenton Duvall (2011)
Picks out the chorus of Wale’s “World Tour,” and supplements it with raps from Lil’ Wayne and Dre’s “Forgot About Dre,” placing each of them against a shimmering, beautiful, insistent background of electronica. The resulting creation sounds totally distinct and organic – it’s almost impossible to picture these pieces in their original form. The Dre part, in particular, is utterly different. What came off as aggressive and petulant when backed by Eminem now sounds strangely humble, even hopeful.
87. Aaron & Maria – American Analog Set (2001)
A modern love story, quiet and precise. The march is measured, the guitars gentle but cool to the touch, and the drumming the soul of restraint. And it’s summed up perfectly in the refrain: “loving you is just enough, cause no one gives a fuck about us.”
86. Who’ll Stop the Rain – Creedence Clearwater Revival (1970)
Released in January of 1970, in many ways this song marks the turning point from the optimism and endless possibility implied in the music of the 60s to the retrenchment and dissolution of the 70s. The lyrics are reflective, drawn vaguely enough to speak universally, but clearly meant to speak to the rising horror of the Vietnam War – and to the strange brew of music and counterculture and self-immolation of Woodstock.
85. Hallelujah – Jeff Buckley (1994)
You don’t need me to tell you anything about this song. Yes, it’s overused in film and TV. Yes, it walks a very fine line between precocious and precious. But c’mon. Pretend you’ve never heard it before and listen with fresh ears. It’s an astonishing performance, one that more than pays off any debts incurred by overzealous filmmakers in need of a soundtrack for heartbreak.
84. Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth) – George Harrison (1973)
Of all them, I think George ended up with the most successful post-Beatles career. This song narrowly beat out three or four others that could easily have also made the list. It’s a very simple song, with a pretty basic chord progression and a repeated lyrical refrain. But that underlying structure is just a delight. It’s soulful, warm, light, and sparkling.
83. Immunity – Jon Hopkins (2013)
Love is the longing for the half of ourselves we have lost.
82. Layla – Eric Clapton (1970 and 1992)
This song wouldn’t quite make the cut in either its original form (searing guitar and extended piano coda) or its bluesy, unplugged update. But the combination of the two iterations—the way they play off one another, adding depth to each iteration, exposing the limits of any singular perspective—elevates the track to a new level, and makes it a worthy addition to the list.
81. If You Leave – OMD (1986)
To my ears, this is the defining song of the 1980s. The decade featured plenty of songs that sold more records (If You Leave was a hit, but not a record-breaker by any stretch), and a few songs that were better. But if you took all the distinctive features of the 80s, stuck them in a centrifuge to strip out all the mediocre variations, you’d get this track: the pure distillation of what was good about the decade. Given that, it should be no surprise that the song was written specifically for the closing scene of a John Hughes movie.
As a lover of music and as an obsessive maker of lists, it’s kind of surprising I’ve never put in the effort to construct this ultimate list before. But one of my friends recently sent his own list and it got me to thinking about what I’d put on mine. And, as the owner of a blog where I get to ramble on endlessly about the music I like, it seemed like a good excuse to engage the project.
The only rule is ‘one song per artist.’ And it’s important to make clear that this is simply a list of my personal favorite songs. Plenty of all-time classics are missing here, while some relatively inconsequential ones make the list. I make no claim that, for example, “A Summer Song” is objectively superior to “What’s Going On.” I just (perhaps inexplicably) enjoy the former more.
As a result, this is a list that tilts fairly heavily toward my own personal history. I was a kid who grew up listening to oldies radio stations, joined up with modern music in the mid 90s once boys with guitars were back in style, and then slipped seamlessly into the indie rock bubble of the early 2000s. Over the years, I’ve worked to expand my musical horizons a bit, bringing in more hip-hop and jazz, more music from women, more work in experimental genres. But at the end of the day, the ‘sad boys with guitars’ groove is carved pretty deep, and that’s going to be reflected in the list.
Maybe someday I’ll work on a different list of the 100 most important songs in modern musical history. But for now, this is just my personal favorites. For better and for worse.
I’ll be posting it in installments over the next week or so. For today, it’s tracks 91-100.
100. Waitin’ for a Superman (Remix) – The Flaming Lips (1999)
The base of this song is a lovely rumination on the limits of human achievement and the ways we struggle to hold everything together in spite of those limits. The remix adds a beautiful sheen, which lets the underlying hopefulness shine through more clearly.
99. Daydream Believer – The Monkees (1967)
My favorite detail of this song is that the original lyric was “now you know how funky I can be” but the record execs insisted that it be changed to ‘happy’ because funky might make people think about a bad smell. The line, as changed, doesn’t really make sense, but somehow it works better this way.
98. Let’s Get Out Of This Country – Camera Obscura (2006)
I absolutely adore this song. It’s a revelation, almost a religious experience. The joyfulness, the way that opening guitar riff signals the rush of good feelings and hope at a new day. It deserves to be played on a sunny day when you can throw all your cares to the wind and just enjoy yourself.
97. It Ain’t Me Babe – The Turtles (1965)
Folk-rock covers of Dylan songs were a real cottage industry for a couple years there in the mid-60s. This song is the best of the bunch to my ears—even bettering the wonderful Mr. Tambourine Man from the Byrds. Part of the joy comes from the radical restyling of the song. There’s a raucous quality to this version, which plays nicely with the underlying bitterness of Dylan’s lyrics.
96. Source Tags And Codes – And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead (2002)
An all-time great album-closer. It rises above the noise and chaos, like some sort of glorious rock and roll city on the hill.
95. Light My Fire – The Doors (1967)
Growing up, The Doors were the one band that everyone in my family loved. And this song more than any of the others. To me, this is the soundtrack of long family road trips. It’s the song that we played at my grandfather’s funeral—because we all loved it and who cares what it’s ‘really’ about. I completely understand why a lot of people dislike this band. But for me, they’ll always sound like home.
94. Modern Girl – Sleater-Kinney (2005)
This almost certainly isn’t the best Sleater-Kinney song. But it’s my favorite. It starts out pretty, and then builds and builds into that final minute, where they make a joyful noise unto the world.
93. The Con – Tegan and Sara (2007)
Tegan and Sara’s definitive statement of intention. A rambunctious pop masterpiece, packed with hooks and synths and unadulterated joy. It’s charming beyond belief, sensitive, swaggering, anxious, and compassionate. Everything you could ask for.
92. With Or Without You – U2 (1987)
Reasonable people can disagree over precisely when U2 tipped over the edge from great rock band into self-parodying musical commodity. But those first few albums really were glorious explosions of rock fire. And I’d say the absolute peak was right here, in this quiet, confident, achingly pure song about the nature of sacrifice. It somewhat notoriously deploys the I–V–vi–IV chord progression, but does so in the service of a genuinely sophisticated melodic development. Rather than deploying a simple verse-chorus-verse, it works a lot more like a classical composition, with a number of themes that interlink and repopulate in some surprising ways.
91. Howl – The Gaslight Anthem (2012)
Designed as a sort of postscript to Thunder Road (spoiler alert: Thunder Road will be higher on this list). Once again, there’s a girl whose dress waves, a guy with a car offering to take her away. But it’s pitched toward the future, to a Mary who said ‘no’ to the first offer. She stuck around, went to school, and made a life for herself. And now our hero sends out a final missive: you know where you can find me, and all those plans I made might still have some life in them. It works because it’s audacious, it works because it feels real, and it works because Fallon absolutely sticks his lines. For a band that’s devoted to the idea that the radio really might just save us, this is the shining moment where it feels absolutely and completely possible. So when he sings “I waited on your call and made my plans to share my name” there’s nothing you can do but hope along with him.
The past decade has been a real golden period for music. But unlike previous golden ages, which were defined by extensive innovation in popular genres (the mid to late 60s with rock, the mid 80s to early 90s with rap being the most obvious examples), this era has been defined primarily by the workings and reworkings of existing genres. That’s made for less truly innovative work, but it’s created the space for niche styles to thrive and flourish. And the explosion of people making music (as well as distribution options for hearing that music) has put an unprecedented amount of great music at our fingertips.
I say all that just to provide some context for my statement that 2016 has been kind of a bummer of a year musically. The point is: I’m not a grump about the decline of modern music, and I generally enjoy all the diversity and intermixing of styles that defines this particular era. It’s just that in 2016, the result tended to be a lot of records with 3-4 songs I liked and a bunch that just slid past me without leaving much impression.
In the end, these 15 albums were the ones I felt like I could really endorse wholeheartedly. None of them are inner circle greats (I mean, my #1 record of the year is probably only my third favorite album from that artist), but these are the 15 that I enjoyed from top to bottom. It’s the most ‘indie rock’ heavy list I’ve put together in a long time, though there are a few pop records here, and a decent slice of Americana to balance things out just a little bit.
There have been probably millions of words written about Lemonade this year, and I don’t really have anything new or exciting to add to the conversation. It’s a great record, both musically and lyrically. And it’s really a testament to her talents as an artist that it can combine so many elements and still feel utterly cohesive. But it’s more than that. This is a record about the meaning of black life in 21st century America, which manages to ring absolutely true to itself while also being accessible to those on the outside. White America needs to do a lot more than just listen to Lemonade, but hopefully in at least a few cases, this record will be a start.
The final album from a wonderful band, written in the months before Benjamin Curtis died in 2013 and eventually completed by Alejandra Deheza. Which means that one unavoidable theme here is the simple tragedy of a life lost far too soon. And that is particularly acute because this record suggests that the band was ready to explore some exciting new creative worlds. It’s noticeably the same band – the songs remain textured, gauzy, enveloping – but this iteration is punctuated by classic pop notes and glitchy interjections. The result is somewhere in between shoegaze and new wave, but tangential to both. While it doesn’t actually work in every case here, it would have been really something to hear where they might have gone.
A record that could have used some (or even a lot) of editing. The songs mostly run out to six or seven minutes, and there’s a long chunk in the middle (tracks 3-7, basically) that feels pretty inessential. So, yeah, if you’re the sort of person who gets easily frustrated by rock music’s ascent into pure simulacra, you’ll probably want to limit yourself to “Radio of Lips” and “Fog (Black Windows).” But for the rest of us, who still sometimes appreciate the spirit of meaningless excess, and occasionally find ourselves longing for a journey through the endless sprawl of a rock and roll landscape, this is a record worth digging into.
Highlights: Radio of Lips, Fog (Black Windows), A Second in White, Running Hands With the Night
Most of year’s big pop records left me feeling pretty cold. This one was the big exception. Grande sometimes suffers from the Mariah Carey comparisons, but I have to say that while she’s not (quite) the singer that Mariah was, I think she’s working with a better batch of songs. Maybe that’s just my personal preference for Ariana’s pop over Mariah’s R&B. Either way, this is a relentlessly fun record.
Highlights: Into You, Side to Side, Bad Decisions, Thinking Bout You
The conclusion to his Family Tree trilogy – an enticingproject which tells the magical realist story of an extended family over the course of a full century. The latter two records of the trilogy weren’t quite able to deliver on the promise (as with many journeys, the embarkation was the most exciting moment). Still, even without any singular moments of beauty, this is a very enjoyable record.
Has it really been 10 years since The Con came out? In that decade, the Sisters Quin have fallen into a pretty standard pattern. Every couple of years, release a new record, each one with slightly more pop notes than the last. They’ve all been good, none have quite been great. Something has definitely been lost as the quirk/pop ratio has become more and more tilted toward the latter. But they’re still great songwriters. And Love You to Death is no exception.
There are times when the bare content of words is a limit to understanding, when language itself is simply a void into which we can stare endlessly but see nothing. And this is never more true than in the face of grief. How to express a feeling of loss? What words can wrap themselves around a vacancy? Music doesn’t resolve this problem. But it at least allows us to name the absence. It surrounds hollowness, gives it shape and form. And even sometimes makes it beautiful.
Highlights: In Heaven, Jane Cum, Triple 7, Rugged Country
The most complete work yet from the venerable post-rockers. They draw on a wide array of genres and inspirations: I hear early Pink Floyd, Disintegration-era Cure, Butch Vig percussion, and classically-influenced piano escalations. Given the range of influences on display, and the depth of their expression, the truly surprising thing in this record is just how warm it feels. Explosions in the Sky have always been aptly named band: plenty of beautiful explosions, but they did always feel a bit distant. This record, though, feels intimate in a way that they never have before, and without losing any of its scope.
Highlights: Colors In Space, Logic of a Dream, The Ecstatics, Landing Cliffs
This is a sprawling double-record overstuffed with emotions and heartache. It’s broken beer bottles and dusty roads, false bravado and tearful confessions. It’s the real-time documentation of a heart trying to put itself back together, imperfectly and without any real sense of hope. She doesn’t quite stick the landing on every song, but in a way that’s all part of the journey. I’m infinitely more happy getting a chance to experience the whole thing, warts and all. Miranda Lambert has plenty of great records already, but this one is her masterpiece.
Highlights: I’ve Got Wheels, Ugly Lights, Tin Man, Pushin’ Time, Things That Break
A record so accomplished that it’s almost impossible to believe it’s a debut. Freeman draws easily from a wide range of Americana styles – some Appalachian here, some country & western there, some pop tinges, some pure folk. I hear hints of Iris Dement, of Patty Griffin, of Emmylou and Dolly, of Johnny and June. There’s 60s girl group beats here, the stomp of a country wedding, the plodding certainty of a chain gang. With all those influences struggling to fit into a single record, there’s a risk that things might get just a little bit muddled, but the movements are almost perfectly frictionless. In fact, to the extent that there’s any flaw here, it’s that Freeman is able to draw so effortlessly on such a range of styles that it’s hard to pin down a core that is hers and hers alone. This debut is an immaculately constructed journey through the many worlds of country music. I look forward to future records that linger a bit longer in each location and give us all a chance to take in the surroundings.
Highlights: Lullaby, Still a Child, You Say, Ain’t Nobody, Go On Lovin’
I’m a long-time Radiohead skeptic – the sort of philistine who thinks The Bends is their best album. I’ve always been happy to acknowledge the genius of their songcraft, without necessarily wanting to listen all that much. But, for the first time in two decades, I’m wholeheartedly on board the Radiohead train. Apparently, this is Thom Yorke’s breakup record, and it’s tempting to put all the explanatory work on that fact. To see that emotional core as the key to making this record more relatable. And maybe that really is what’s going on. But it feels just a little too pat, especially since the two best songs (Burn the Witch and True Love Waits) were written years ago. So I think the point has to be more broadly construed. This isn’t simply a ‘breakup’ record; it’s a record about coming to terms with the burdens of being a human being in a world that continues to spin faster and faster. And about those places where we find meaning amidst the chaos.
She takes what are fundamentally very straightforward folk songs, dices them up, remixes the pieces, and overlays them with effects. But – and this is the crucial thing – these constructions retain all of the warmth of their acoustic origins. To fracture is not to destroy, but to expose new facets and to enrich the experience of listening. It’s only five songs, but each one is a jewel worthy of endless exploration. I can’t wait for a full record.
Another wonderful record from one of my favorite artists of the millennium. Seriously, can we please get this woman a major record deal, folks? As always, there’s an awesome timelessness to her music – one of those things that seems easy but is actually incredibly difficult to pull off. Turn on any ‘adult contemporary radio station’ and you’ll get endless attempts at this sort of timelessness, all of which do nothing more than evoke nostalgia for the ever-receding present. It’s a grim business.
But The Burden of Unshakeable Proof is completely different. Its defining feature is a deep sense of connection between past, present, and future. A recognition that we are, all of us, struggling to make sense of a perpetually moving horizon – constrained by the choices of our past selves, full of anxiety about the what may yet come. These songs reside in that liminal state between the two: the bright flickering present, weighted down by the obligations of past and future and yet still struggling to be free.
And that makes it the absolutely perfect record for 2016. A year whose politics have felt so relentlessly grim. A year defined by the limits of our collective imaginative horizons. It’s been tough going, but I’ve very much appreciated having this album by my side for the journey – if only to remind me that there is always beauty in this world, if we can just manage to find it.
The language of ‘alternative rock’ barely made sense in 1993 – when it struggled to contain grunge and shoegaze and post-punk and metal and industrial, to name only a few. Very quickly, the idea of meaningful connections among all those genres dissipated, and everyone went their separate ways. And yet here is Nothing, twenty years later, with a paean to the unity of all these sounds. That may end up be unsatisfying to the dedicated fans of each balkanized style. But for those of us who fondly remember that brief period of cross-pollination, this record is a shining example of what can be done. It’s the best 90s rock record released since the 90s themselves.
Frightened Rabbit are the best rock band on the planet right now, and I don’t think it’s particularly close. This is their second #1 finish on my year end albums list, after 2008‘s impossibly good Midnight Organ Fight. In between, they released my #3 record of 2010 and my #6 record of 2013. That’s some remarkable consistency.
There’s not really too much that’s surprising about this record. The songs are a bit more melodic and a bit less skittery than on Pedestrian Verse, without quite returning to the anthemic scale of The Winter of Mixed Drinks. Compared to those records, this one tends more toward the atmospheric, with pianos and synths playing a more significant role. It certainly feels quieter–more slow burners and fewer songs that unleash themselves immediately. In less talented hands, restrained could topple over the edge into boring, but apart from a brief dry spell in the back half, they mostly avoid that particular trap.
To the extent that there’s a real break from their previous work, it’s in the subject matter. It would be hard to call this a hopeful album. But for a band that have built their career on documenting all the different ways in which people can shatter, it’s exciting to hear a record whose underlying themes seem to be more focused on how people create connections, rather than on how they sever them.
Highlights: I Wish I Was Sober, Break, Blood Under the Bridge, Wait ‘Til the Morning, Woke Up Hurting
2016 hasn’t been the greatest year. Politically, culturally, socially. And unfortunately, as it turns out, musically as well. Not that it was an awful year, just a drab one. Still, even in a comparatively down year for music, there was still tons of great stuff.
For whatever reason, my list was pretty heavily dominated by women this year, and featured a lot more roots, country, and similar styles than I’ve included in past editions. A down year for America as a whole was a pretty solid year for Americana, I guess.
As always, these are simply the songs that I liked the most. I make no claims to objectivity. And if your favorite missed the cut, it might just be that I missed it, so don’t hesitate to toss me recommendations.
A great, slinky song, with a wonderful vocal performance from Empress Of. The line that kills me is: “I can’t be the girl you want but I can be the thing you throw away.”
39. You Just Want – King Creosote
A deeply meditative song that digs down into the cross section of sacred and profane.
38. Higher – Rihanna
I didn’t care much for the Rihanna songs that got significant play this year, but this little one from the end of Anti really does it for me. It was apparently recorded very late in the night, when she was more than a little intoxicated. And it sounds exactly like that, in all the best ways.
37. Annie – Petite League
Punk rock is a young man’s game, mostly. But that’s alright because there are always more young men waiting to fill in the ranks.
36. Guns Of Umpqua – Drive-By Truckers
I really wanted to love the Truckers going political, but the album mostly didn’t stick with me. I do love this song, though.
35. Black Beatles (feat. Gucci Mane) – Rae Sremmurd
I could take or leave the Mannequin thing – which I somehow managed to mostly miss while it was going on – but the song more than stands on its own.
34. Breakers Roar – Sturgill Simpson
A strange, dark lullaby. Ruminations on loss and the transience of suffering, as told to the singer’s infant child.
33. Beached – Julianna Barwick
A piano, cello, and a wordless chorus – all trying to find their way together, moving in and out of phase, proving that there can be great beauty in disalignment.
32. Congratulations – Dessa
There wasn’t much on the Hamilton Mixtape that struck me as essential, but this track definitely qualifies. It’s a shame it was omitted from the original production, since it provides an important capstone on the Angelica/Hamilton relationship. So getting the song now–and performed by Dessa no less–is a welcome surprise.
31. 29 #Strafford APTS – Bon Iver
For the most part, I found the Bon Iver record to be interesting more than enjoyable. This song is the beautiful exception.
30. Kismet Kill – Haley Bonar
The bass line is the star here. It’s the engine under the hood that keeps the whole thing humming.
29. My Church – Maren Morris
The ‘mainstream’ vs. ‘authentic’ country debate is tiresome and pointless, exhibit #183,393. Just enjoy the song and stop worrying so much about what counts as the ‘real’ Nashville!
28. Trailer – Mudcrutch
This song was supposed to end up on Petty’s Southern Accents (where it would have been an excellent fit), but ended up stuck on the “Don’t Come Around Here No More” b-side. Finally, thirty years later, it’s getting a proper release, and it sounds better than ever. Petty seems to be really enjoying the ‘have fun jamming with your friends’ part of his career. It hasn’t produced much in the way of classics, but sure does seem like it’s a lot of fun.
27. Open Your Eyes – School of Seven Bells
It’s really depressing to know that we’ll never get to find out where this band could have gone from this. They took an interesting turn in their sound here, and I’d love to have been able to hear them develop it. RIP Benjamin Curtis.
26. Those Better Days – Mimi Page
A beautiful tapestry of a song, built around a simple guitar riff, a few plinking piano notes, and layers of electronic texture doled out in precise amounts. It builds an entire world in just under two minutes.
25. Hidden Driver – LVL UP
It opens with the guitar riff from “Ghost” by Neutral Milk Hotel, and the similarities don’t end there. It’s not pure NMH-mimickry, which would be a pretty hard sell. But it’s got that same sense of careening just beyond the edge to control.
24. Fill In The Blank – Car Seat Headrest
I really do like this song, which is a nice mixture of Replacements+Cars+Green Day. But I need to take a slight detour here and express my utter confusion at the effusive praise this band has been getting. They made a decent indie rock record. A solid B- or maybe a B. In a weak year for rock records, it would probably make my top 10 for the genre. That’s about it. Get a grip, people!
23. White – HANA
Dance music for a dreamscape. HANA toured with Grimes, and you definitely can see the overlap of their styles here.
The closest thing I’ve heard to Iris Dement in a long, long time.
20. What Happened to Us? – Shura
The classic combos: peanut butter and jelly, Frodo and Sam, synths and feelings.
19. Ether – Mogwai
A single deep breath, spaced out over five minutes. Drink it all in, and then push back and let yourself drift away into the quiet nothing.
18. Your Best American Girl – Mitski
The chorus of this song is just fireworks layered on top of more fireworks.
17. Folk Arp – Minor Victories
Q: What do you get if you form a supergroup out of members from Slowdive, Mogwai, and Editors? A: This song.
16. Troublemaker, Doppelganger – Lucy Dacus
Three minutes of bluesy riffs that converge into a minute of pure explosive joy to finish things off. This is basically musical catnip for me.
15. I’ve Got Wheels – Miranda Lambert
Miranda Lambert, in the classic tradition of the American troubadour, concludes her long journey through the dark night of the soul with a bit of hope. There’s redemption to be found out there somewhere. “Whatever road, however long. I’ve got wheels. I’m rolling on.”
14. BWU – Tegan & Sara
Tegan and Sara have made a career out of reversing that classic Tolstoy line (‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’). Their best songs consistently dwell in the space between the specificity of happiness and the universality of heartbreak. This song is another delightful entry in the canon.
13. Burn The Witch – Radiohead
Finely measured strings trace the outlines of a prison. Inside, Thom Yorke paces in measured steps, just waiting for the chance to leap the walls.
12. Daddy Lessons – Beyonce
If you ask twelve people, you’ll probably get twelve different favorite songs from Lemonade. Not surprisingly, given the number of other Americana tracks on this list, I found myself gravitating toward this one. It’s not quite ‘Bey goes to the country,’ but it’s not too far away.
11. ACD (Abcessive Compulsive Disorder) – Nothing
10. Radio of Lips – The Joy Formidable
9. I Wish I Was Sober – Frightened Rabbit
In a year without much in the way of great rock and roll, these three tracks provide a nice counterpoint to the general malaise. None of them expand the genre in any significant ways, but they all make clear that there’s plenty of space for music to be exciting without necessarily breaking new ground.
8. Prayer in Open D – Phoebe Bridgers
It’s the rare cover that outshines the original. And when the original is by Emmylou Harris, well, that’s really saying something. I adore this song and can’t wait for a full-length from Phoebe Bridgers.
7. Highway Anxiety – William Tyler
Don’t let anyone tell you that there’s no more magic left in the world. As long as the guitar exists, there are infinite illusions still waiting to be unfurled. There are few sorcerers of this craft better than William Tyler, and this is his finest work yet.
6. Watching the Waiting – Wye Oak
Jangly guitars and a galloping beat, which can lift you far up into the sky, if you’ll just let it take you there.
5. Into You – Ariana Grande
The best pop song of the past five years. I was already a fan, but this is the song that put me 100% in the tank for Ariana Grande.
4. All of These Years – Vanessa Peters
There is no song this year that made me smile more than this one. Not even close.
3. Words – Outer Spaces
This is the song that 2016 needed. That opening guitar riff says that no matter how dark it gets, there is still so much right in this world.
2. So Here We Are – Gordi
It’s a beautiful melody, and the production is wonderful. But it’s more than that. There’s something here that slices through me in a way I don’t fully understand and certainly can’t explain. Some songs just disarm you.
1. In Heaven – Japanese Breakfast
It shimmers in the dark, like a distant city skyline on a cold November night. Then she starts singing and your breath catches in your throat, the way it does when someone’s about to tell you bad news and is just shuffling around, looking for the right words. But just as the bleakness threatens to overwhelm, she unleashes a chorus – so pure, so heartbreakingly sad, so beautiful – and the whole world shifts under your feet.
Michael: Gee, it is my business model. I mean, if you had a business model, then by all means, you go in there and do…
For the last few weeks, frantic liberals have been checking the 538 election forecasts, and discovering a lot of reasons to worry. Their model – which famously predicted a relatively easy win for Obama in 2012, against the wisdom of pundits who insisted it was a 50/50 election – dropped Clinton down into the 60s at the start of November, and only finally ticked slightly back over 70 last night.
This compares to a host of other models, which have all consistently put the race in the 80s and 90s – a virtually sure thing.
Meanwhile, Silver has been quite pugilistic with his critics, making two key arguments. First, predictions are difficult and our knowledge imperfect. Our models ought to incorporate that doubt, something that he thinks the other forecasting systems don’t do enough of. Second, drawing on information sources outside of a systematic model introduces bias. People will cherry-pick information that matches their desires, and the introduction of that bias will pollute the conclusions.
What Nate Silver gets right about forecasting
Both of these arguments have value, and deserve attention. Models are only as smart as the work that we put into them. They organize information, providing stable techniques for analyzing and unfolding the meaning contained in the data. But all the assumptions of the model are the assumptions WE humans generate. And there’s good reasons for us to be skeptical about the quality and reliability of our guesses.
Which is to say: broadly speaking, Silver is right to encourage us to frame our thoughts through rigorous models, but also right to remind us that rigor is not the same thing as certainty.
However, and it’s a big however, threading the needle between those two premises can be difficult. And Silver has definitely failed to execute it perfectly in this cycle. In part, this seems driven by his notable failure in the Republican primary, where he famously declared Trump had virtually no chance. Of course, so did many others (including your humble blogger here), so that’s hardly a specific fault of Silver’s. But regardless, the experience seems to have left him a little snakebit. In his autopsy of that prediction, Silver noted that the basic error was one of punditry – shooting from the hip based on anecdote and guesswork, rather than constructing and then trusting a systematic model. And there’s some truth to that, as I’ve just explained. But there’s also a serious risk of overcorrection.
Remember: models only produce useful information to the extent that we build them on solid foundations. That means that good analysis often requires both assessing what the model tells us, and then assessing what information it might be failing to capture.
What’s ‘missing’ from the 538 model
In the 2016 presidential election, there are a few crucial pieces of information that 538’s model doesn’t include, which someone interested in improving the science of forecasting should care about a great deal.
First, the model doesn’t ‘know’ anything about turnout operations. The political science here is scattered, and mostly suggests that turnout has relatively little effect. But ‘little’ isn’t the same as zero. Particularly when one campaign is a well-oiled machine and the other is, to put it politely, a dumpster fire.
It’s important to note that 538 makes no claim to incorporate this sort of information. Nor should it. Turnout probably does matter, but given our current state of knowledge, it would be wrong to suggest we have the tools to meaningfully incorporate it into a rigorous system. So this isn’t a knock on the model, per se; it’s just a reminder that ‘unmeasurable’ is not the same thing as ‘nonexistent.’
Second, the model doesn’t ‘know’ anything about other forecasts. This is a big deal. Research has shown that the ‘wisdom of crows’ holds with forecasters, as much as it does with polls themselves. Just like you shouldn’t remove outlier polls, you shouldn’t remove outlier forecasts. But it’s important to place them in context. And the context of 2016 makes clear that 538 is a fairly significant outlier. Does that mean that Silver’s model is wrong or broken? Of course not. It might end up being the most accurate! But a good forecaster will acknowledge the questions raised by their outlier prediction, even if they believe that their method is in fact the best one.
And that’s something that 538 hasn’t made particularly clear. When they talk about other models, it’s usually in terms of ‘who’s right’ but rarely (if ever) is the meta point made that averaging the results might well be more accurate than any single model. And in all other discussions, the background assumption of all their commentary is that the 538 model is a true representation of the state of the race.
But this is antithetical to the principles I described above: which suggest caution and humility as the benchmarks of good predictions. Silver has every right to be proud of his system, and should do his best to explain why his assumptions are superior. But he also ought to do a better job of communicating the risks of overreliance on any single model.
Third, and from my perspective most important, the model doesn’t ‘know’ how to process two durable and persistent features of the public polling: a stable Clinton advantage and a large number of ‘undecided’ voters.
You can see both of these in the Pollster trendline, which shows A) a clear and unbroken Clinton edge and B) percentages for Clinton and Trump that add up to quite a bit less than 100%.
What is uncertainty, actually?
From Silver’s perspective, this adds a great deal of uncertainty to the race. A three-point lead of 51-48 is very hard to overcome, since one candidate already has a majority of the votes. A three-point lead of 45-42 is much less safe, because it doesn’t require flipping voters to make up the gap. So, in his model, Clinton’s persistent lead is interesting, but doesn’t indicate all that much safety.
And if those voters really were undecided, that would probably be true. What I’ve increasingly come to believe about this election, however, is that ‘undecided’ is a poor way to describe that missing 10-15%. I think that very FEW of them are genuinely undecided.
Instead, these folks are relatively strong partisans who don’t like the candidate their side is running and would prefer not to vote for them. And as long as the election remains far off, or looks like a blowout, they’ll remain on the sidelines. But when things seem to be getting close, they grudgingly fall in line.
The ‘Clinton wall’ hypothesis
I’ll be the first to admit that I lack a rigorous model to undergird this theory. But it strikes me as exceptionally plausible, and conforms quite nicely with the available facts. This theory suggests that ‘not Trump, dear god not Trump’ is an incredibly stable majority opinion among the electorate, with a significant subset who’d prefer to avoid casting a ballot for Clinton if they can avoid it. And it hypothesizes that anytime Trump draws close in the polling, a number of these leaners will fall in line to buttress the ‘Clinton wall.’
And that’s precisely what we see. Trump has bounced off that Clinton wall quite a few times. That’s partly due to the cycles of the campaign (the convention, the debates, the traditional unveiling of sexual assault tape), but it’s also likely an underlying feature of the electorate itself.
Silver built a model designed to look at undecided voters and extrapolate uncertainty. Given the parameters he set, newer polls matter more than older ones, and they establish trendlines for filtering other information. Those are perfectly reasonable assumptions. But other models don’t approach the question the same way. They take older polls as setting some important Bayesian priors about electoral attitudes.
Those models see a race where one candidate has led from start to finish and interpret ‘tightening’ in the polls as the normal ebbs and flows of a fundamentally exceptionally stable campaign. They are therefore a lot more CERTAIN about the strength of Clinton’s lead.
The problem isn’t punditry; the problem is bad punditry
Who is right? We’ll have to wait to see, and might not know even after the result are in. After all, everyone is predicting a Clinton win, and the difference between 70% and 90% simply isn’t going to come out in a single wash cycle. And chances are extremely high that no one is really ‘right’ here. Because that’s not how most science works. Our models are rarely correct. They’re just approximations, given what we knew at the time. As we get more information, and encounter new unexpected scenarios, we try to refine and improve our predictions.
And that’s been the real problem with 538 this cycle. There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with the model. It may in fact be the most accurate! But there has been something wrong with Silver’s attitude toward this kind of criticism. Faced with this sort of error, he’s tended to retreat into the bunker, more invested in defending the legitimacy of his assumptions than he is in improving the quality of forecasting in general.
That’s perhaps understandable, given the monetary incentives that drive the forecasting business, and given his desire to avoid another embarrassing incident of underselling Trump’s chances. After all, it’s easy to default back to the model, and to refuse to speculate much beyond what it tells us. But that’s a form of intellectual laziness, and one that doesn’t acknowledge that one of Silver’s greatest strength has always been his ability to blend data and analysis. That’s a crucial skill, and it’s one he’s been letting atrophy a bit, in favor of playing the role of iconoclast and destroyer of ‘conventional wisdom.’
So, if his mistake in the primary was to ‘act like a pundit,’ he hasn’t really fixed the problem. He’s doing less ‘pundit-like’ speculation, sure, but he’s replaced it with a different sort of punditry: where people take a baseline set of information with which they feel comfortable, and then do their best to minimize and ignore everything else.
In effect, Silver is behaving a little like the crusty old sportswriters he’s always criticized: certain that the stats they know tell the whole story, and nothing else is deserving of their attention. The 538 forecast is a heck of a lot better than batting average and game-winning-RBIs, of course, but it still needs improvements. And it’s more likely to get those improvements if it’s understood as a technique for assisting analysis, rather than as a form of analysis itself.
The most enigmatic musician of the modern era, and now a Nobel laureate to boot. In some ways, it’s tough to write about Dylan’s genius. Some aspects are so obvious that it feels pointless to belabor the point with further words. Other parts are so ephemeral that language struggles to meet the task of description. Talking about his art, that is to say, feels all too much like ‘dancing about architecture.’
But we persist nonetheless. Because the other thing about Dylan’s work is its deep emotional resonances. His music invites us to reflect on our own beliefs and our own deepest feelings. To encounter the strangeness of life, in all its particularity and its universality. To make our inner reflections on selfhood into a shared communal experience. To bridge the horizons between what we know and what we feel to be true.
In writing this list, I set out on that path myself. I’ll be the first to admit that this is a personal list, with at least a couple idiosyncratic choices. I haven’t listened to all his catalog (by any stretch), and I have my own proclivities about when Dylan was truly at his best. So with that in mind, I’m even more interested than usual in hearing from my readers about your favorites. Particularly the more obscure ones. The bootleg recording from 1973, when he tuned his guitar to a Modal D and breathed new life into an old b-side…tell me what you’ve got!
10. Blowin’ in the Wind (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan)
Dylan arrived on a folk scene interested mostly in singing the old standards, and on unearthing the lost gems of a previous era. He played that game for a little while himself, but quickly stepped forward. And in doing so, he changed the world. Blowin’ in the Wind is a protest song, but it’s so very much more. The questions aren’t simply rhetorical devices, meant to shame and inspire action; they’re ruminations on the stark limits of human experience, on the blind paths we all walk down, the infinite possibility of the open sky.
In the end, he wrote a song that was both perfectly of its time, and also entirely outside of time. It’s a song we might well still be singing a thousand years from now. A little closer to the answers, hopefully, but still all too aware that the wind sometimes whispers words in a code that humanity may never fully unlock.
9. Subterranean Homesick Blues (Bringing It All Back Home)
Not satisfied with one earth-shaking contribution to the American musical landscape, Dylan released Bringing it All Back Home a scant two years after Blowin’ in the Wind had hit the scene. In his first incarnation, he was the savior of folk music, the symbol of the new depths that could be explored by a boy and his guitar. But now, Dylan turned his attention to rock music—only a decade old, and already in steep decline. It needed a swift kick, and a reminder that rock was meant to snarl, to dislocate, to burn away all that tied us down.
And so he took aim at all of his own idols, and the idols of all his fans. You can almost read it as a form of self-sabotage. They’re going to hate the electric turn, anyways, he muses to himself, so why not let them have it with both barrels? The result is an avalanche of words, which gains momentum with every second – as that underlying chord progression refuses to let up, as Dylan snarls out the litany of abuses inflicted by the simple act of trying to stay alive in a world that cares not one whit for your success or your failure. And as with many of Dylan’s best works, the words sometimes get beyond his capacity to corral them. In a song that shares a great deal of DNA with the proto hip-hop that would come a decade later, the one thing Dylan absolutely can’t do is maintain an even flow. He rushes and waits, just trying to keep from being consumed by the avalanche that he set free.
And good god, the brutal efficiency of “20 years of schooling and they put you on the day shift.”
8. Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again (Blonde on Blonde)
The imagery is brilliant, but more than any other song on this list, I think this track is primarily defined by the backing band. The organ weaving through and around Dylan’s lyrics, sometimes as a counterpoint, sometimes as an emphasis. And the percussion is superb. The ratatat holds the entire enterprise together, preventing the madness of the words from becoming overwhelming. In a less deft performance, this song would quickly become a parody of itself. But somehow, for all seven minutes of its length, they keep everything in balance.
And, in a certain sense, whatever meaning I can glean from the song comes from precisely that point. The truest words of the song are spoken right at the beginning, when the narrator admits: “deep inside my heart, I know I can’t escape.”
7. Most of the Time (Oh Mercy)
I wrote a long post about this song back in the early days of the blog (over 10 years ago, if you can believe it), with a particular focus on its use in High Fidelity. I’ll just quote a little bit of it here…
Bob Dylan’s voice (a handicap at times in his career) is perfectly suited to this situation. Gravelly, wise, but also tender, he tells of the regrets we feel about those we have left behind. The song is about beginning anew, leaving behind the person that you loved. But, there is a delightful tension in lines like:
Most of the time, she ain’t even in my mind
I wouldn’t know her if I saw her, she’s that far behind
Most of the time, I can’t even be sure
If she was ever with me or if I was ever with her
Most of the time, we are fine. But, only most of the time. Sometimes, it hurts so bad you can’t stand it. And I think the singer is in one of those moments. In his constant repetitions that “most of the time” he is okay (doesn’t even miss her, doesn’t even notice that she’s gone), I see as him struggling for something to hold onto. Most of the time, I can survive, but at times like these, it feels very hard. It is not a hopeless song, because he does know that the pain eases and life moves on. But it is a song about how hard it is to lose love, and the struggle that goes on inside.
6. Mr. Tambourine Man (Bringing It All Back Home)
If you want to make the case for Dylan’s Nobel Prize, this song has to feature prominently. The last verse, in particular, is arguably the most beautiful imagery ever put to melody:
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow
There are a vanishingly small few songs ever written that feel as if they come from beyond this world. This is one such song. It speaks to truths that exceed our own limited understanding. And you can’t help but think that there must be so much more out there somewhere, if only we could hear it. We were lucky enough to be gifted one genius who briefly tapped into the right wavelength and managed to catch four verses. But somewhere out there, all truths are sung, and all worlds are made possible.
5. Mississippi (Love and Theft)
It’s an old man’s song, but not in the straightforward way it’s sometimes understood, as a personal reflection from Dylan on his own age and mortality. It may well be that, but far more importantly it’s a song about what it means for each of us to inhabit our own futures, to flee from that which we once were.
We look forward, resolutely, with all attention on the time still to come. And yet, with each passing day, it becomes harder to avoid glancing back. And when we do, we see that the past never left us. It remains there, patiently waiting, unmastered. We can flee our mistakes, and attack those who force us to remember. But in the end, the evils of our past cannot be escaped. We signed the Declaration of Independence. We fought a Civil War. We envisioned a reconstructed south, one of equality and justice. And then we watched it all crumble and drift away. And all of that is still with us, as much as we’d like to forget it.
So, in the end, recognizing that it’s totally inadequate, we look for solace in a single human connection. And we say: “I know you’re sorry, I’m sorry, too.”
4. Desolation Row (Highway 61 Revisited)
Cinderella, who seems so easy. Ophelia, burned out by 22. Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood, hiding from his past as an electric violin player. The agents and the superhuman crew. They’re all packed together, feeding off one another, growing closer and more fevered in the process.
Each character represents a certain kind of hope, a certain dream. For some it’s escape. For some, it’s simply about finding a way to make meaning out of the chaos. And there’s a certain hopefulness implied in the process, one that’s supplemented by the melody—probably the prettiest Dylan ever composed. But the more time you spend with the song, and try to find the meaning in the words, the more you find yourself trapped by its shifting mirrors. And you begin to understand how so many people could have let themselves into Desolation Row in the first place.
In many respects, this is peak Dylan. A story that invites you in with open arms, and yet which remains utterly inscrutable. It asks you to interpret, even while it challenges the very idea of interpretation. This is Dylan as the anti-Virgil, the perfect guide through the divine comedy of modernity.
3. Like a Rolling Stone (Highway 61 Revisited)
With this song, Dylan showed the world what rock music was truly capable of. It doesn’t bury the 3 minute pop song, but instead elevates it, shows that there’s so much more potential buried in those simple structures. From the first drum kick to the final harmonica solo, this song bulldozes through every limit previously imposed on the genre. How does it feel? It feels great.
2. Just Like a Woman (The Concert for Bangladesh)
The studio version is a good song, no doubt, but probably not even among the five best tracks from Blonde on Blonde. But if you haven’t heard the version from the Concert for Bangladesh, I urge you in the strongest possible terms to check it out. For an artist so totally defined by the endless proliferation of outtakes, alternate versions—and whose vocal efforts varied so widely over the years—I genuinely think that concert represents his peak performative capacity. He played five songs: A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, Blowin’ in the Wind, It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry, Love Minus Zero/No Limit, and Just Like a Woman. And they’re all perfect. But none more so than this one.
The basic sadness of the song has always been in tension with its deep cruelty, and has driven so many to read it as pure misogyny. And in other versions, that feels completely fair. But on this night, we were gifted with something else. A version of the song that doesn’t erase those meanings, but reveals something far deeper within them. Because, in his voice, on this night, the cruelty is reflected backward as well as forward. It’s a song about what we do to each other. About the intolerable pain that we inflict, unrealizing and unwanting, upon those that we love. About the lengths to which we drive them. About the expectations we impose, and the debts we underwrite, while trying to hold something together.
The song begins “nobody feels any pain” – and only through this version of the song does the hollowness of that claim finally become clear. Because of course there is pain, and of course he feels it too. He watches, he sees her trying to brush it aside, and he recognizes the falseness of that mask. But only because he himself understands all too well what it would mean to let the pain overtake us. After all, later in the bridge he says “But what’s worse, is this pain in here, I can’t stay in here.”
And suddenly all the cruelest lines take on new meaning. Yes, she is shallow and boring and immature. But no more so than him. Together they weaved a story, and together they tried to make it real. But just as most love stories do, this one cracked apart, and they were rent and torn in the process.
So now he offers a lamentation. That their time together brought so much pain, that he himself is the cause for so much of it, and that this very fact makes it impossible for him to offer any solace. She has broken, he has done it, and he bows heavily under the weight of that responsibility. Because, every way he turns, there’s pain.
I know that this isn’t the only possible interpretation of the song, and I don’t discount the more straightforward take that it’s simply a brushoff, directed at a woman in pain, wielded by a man who understands precisely how to use dismiss that pain as valid. But, the way he sings that song on that night, I simply can’t accept that meaning. This version of the song springs from a well of deep sympathy. If it is cruel, it’s cruel in the sort of way that we are all cruel—in the terror that comes from realizing that every time we open our hearts we don’t just risk losing something of ourselves, we also risk taking something from someone else.
1. Tangled Up in Blue (Blood on the Tracks)
The perfect Dylan song. The lyrics are brilliant: endlessly evocative without losing the sense of cryptic meaning. A set of interlocking stories, not connected in any obvious sense, but bound together by a shared sense of recurrence. This has all happened before and will all happen again. And yet, the eternal return is not simply a matter of repetition. The stories change, the characters shift, context blurs, and meanings shift. Time can’t be escaped, nor understood. It circles around us, forming memories and then taking them away.
The result is a song told in a series of moments, flashes of possibility. Each scene carries its own internal structure and coherence. And in each case, the narrator achieves some sort of epiphany. A flash of recognition (“I just kept looking at the side of her face, in the spotlight so clear”), of transition (“Lord knows I’ve paid some dues, getting through”), of memory (“I seen a lot of women, but she never escaped my mind”), of passion (“And every one of them words rang true and glowed like burning coal”), of limitation (“the only thing I knew how to do was keep on keeping on”).
Is it the same man, encountering different women? Or vice versa? Or are these the same two souls meeting again and again, but unable to remember? Or are these simply random encounters with no connection at all, other than the simple reality that every encounter carries hints of all the others. And in the end, there’s nothing to be done except take another step down the road, see what waits beyond the next rainbow’s end.
11. Shelter From the Storm (alternate version from the Jerry Maguire soundtrack)
12. Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands (Blonde on Blonde)
13. Love Minus Zero/No Limit (Bringing It All Back Home)
14. I Want You (Blonde on Blonde)
15. Not Dark Yet (Time Out of Mind)
I’m currently reading The Three-Body Problem, and it got me thinking about third parties. Here’s the analogy: the problem with third parties in US politics is that the law of physics under which they operate create impenetrable barriers for a three-party equilibrium.
To be specific: first-past-the-post victory conditions, for single-member districts, layered on top of the Electoral College (state-by-state) presidential system, all doused in a healthy draught of Madisonian federalism. Bring all this together, and you have a set of institutions that are structurally hostile to third parties.
And yet, for some reason, the ‘two party duopoly’ is almost always blamed on things like media refusal to acknowledge third parties, the cynicism and/or stupidity of voters, and efforts by the existing parties to isolate and exclude other alternatives.
Now, to be clear, all those things do matter. But they are mostly the effects, not the causes, of our political system. The media tends not to treat third parties as viable because, given the institutional setup I just described, they aren’t viable, except under truly extraordinary circumstances.
The problem: ‘third parties’ aren’t really parties
We run into trouble on this point, largely because our indeterminate language fails to really capture the nature of the conflict. For the average third-party-curious voter, parties are primarily ideological coalitions, organized around a package of issues. So, if the two main parties fail to reflect your particular package of values, you defect and seek out another option.
The problem is: given the structures of our political system, that’s not what parties are.
Sure, the two main parties have ideological positions, and those do generate the terrain on which most partisan separation takes place. But those values aren’t the core functions of parties. The core function is, quite simply, to win elections. Obviously, winning elections in a country full of people with deep political and moral values means that parties have to become vehicles for the expression of those values. But they must constantly balance those interests with the baser objective of maintaining a coherent organizational structure upon which to mobilize future action.
To put it as bluntly as possible: that’s what it means to be a party, given the underlying physics of the American political structure. But that’s precisely what existing third parties refuse to do, and for obvious reasons. After all, they are organized (to the extent that they are organized at all) around dissatisfaction with the transactional structure of the existing parties.
This simple fact generates a huge amount of conflict among partisans of both models. Much of the ‘throwing away your vote’ rhetoric lobbed in both directions stems from a failure to understand what the other side even wants.
Third parties and the three-body problem
So what does this all mean for third party debates?
Well, put simply: the barriers to meaningful third party participation in politics have almost nothing to do with top-level votes for president, but have everything to do with the nitty-gritty details of the electoral process.
Since there is no plausible equation for a stable three-party system in our existing physics (the three body problem), those third parties that do successfully intrude into an election are certainly capable of producing chaos, but the terminal result is always ejection. Usually of the upstart party, though it’s always theoretically plausible for one of the existing two parties to collapse.
But, and this is crucial, even if the upstart party somehow knocks one of the others off the perch, it won’t really change anything. Because the reasons why parties act like they do (as transactional entities—with all the corruption, side-dealing, and collaborative elitism that this entails) has nothing to do with their ideologies. It’s a function of basic two-party equilibrium. No matter how radical a new entrant might be in its conception, victory inevitably drives out that radicalism. You only need look at the Republican Party of the 1860s, which went from Radical Reconstructionism to an elite-driven Corrupt Bargain in under a decade.
Much like The Santa Clause, if you kill one of the old duopoly, you merely end up taking its place.
These are the two possible effects of third party voting in a presidential race: 1) a bee-sting campaign, which inflicts pain on the target but also kills the bee, and 2) a Santa Clause campaign which fails to resolve the underlying problem of two-party dominance.
The mutable physics of two-party systems
However, none of this is to say that the situation is hopeless.
Because, it turns out, the physics of the political universe aren’t locked into place. While it takes a lot of work, they can be changed. It just requires reorienting your attitude toward the problem. Fighting this out at the level of the presidency is like trying to put out a burning building with a squirt gun. But if you go further upstream, far less pressure is necessary to shift the course of events.
And here is a place where Madisonian federalism becomes an advantage. Because our system as a whole is exceptionally difficult to move. But each individual polity does have the freedom to set its own election laws. Which means there’s room for experimentation at lower levels. And election reform at the state/city/town level is absolutely doable, and has the potential to spill up, if people genuinely prefer it.
There’s plenty of options here: proportional representation systems with multi-member districts, single-transferable vote models, systems that let you indicate all acceptable candidates, etc.
None of these systems are perfect, either. But they are at least real alternatives, in the sense that they create room for third parties to function as ideological agents without being crushed by the weight of our institutional structure.
So who should you vote for in the presidential election?
Vote for whoever you like!
I’m not making a categorical argument against third party voting. A ballot for Johnson or Stein (or someone else) DOES have real effects, and you might well decide that those effects are positive ones. A few examples:
You might want to send a message, playing the role of the bee whose sting can punish those who moved away from your issues.
You might hope cultivate a viable party, capable of replacing one of the current kings of the roost. This was at least a plausible scenario for Johnson in the winter and early spring. It hasn’t turned out that way, which suggests that we’re not too likely get a new Santa Clause anytime soon. But if ever there was a time for an external revolt, Trump is likely the guy against which to act.
You might simply feel that your vote simply reflects your personal convictions, and you have to go with whoever is closest to those convictions.
Now I don’t happen to agree with any of those approaches, but they are reasonable, grounded positions. My only argument here is that ‘striking a blow against two-party-ism’ is simply not one of the plausible outcomes of a Johnson/Stein vote.
So if you can tolerate one of the major party candidates, but are hesitant to vote for them mostly out of disgust for the duopoly, my advice is to find other more useful avenues for expressing that frustration, and cast a vote for one of the major parties in the meantime.
To criticize the media is to tread into disputed territory, even before the content of one’s criticism is unfurled. There is no such thing as ‘the media’ in the sense of a monolithic entity. But to the extent that anything binds together the mainstream media, it would be a shared commitment to neutrality of coverage. The media’s job is not to issue subjective opinions but to lay objective facts on the table.
This is a noble goal, and one that I genuinely do respect. But ‘neutrality’ is a slippery concept. And in recent months, as we draw near to the endpoint of a half-century’s worth of conceptual development, the modern understanding of media ‘neutrality’ is nearing the point of structural collapse. In an age of heightened partisanship, the complexities of neutrality have been stripped away, leaving it a mere husk of its former self. In this age, ‘neutral’ is now virtually synonymous with ‘nonpartisan.’
That has long been an economic necessity, as Josh Marshall points out in an excellent piece on the age of single-paper cities. But increasingly, the economic need to avoid directly antagonizing significant portions of the reading public has been internalized, regarded as the defining feature of journalistic integrity. That trend has only been exacerbated by the proliferation of partisan media outlets, who clearly do put their thumb on the scales in terms of editorial judgment. ‘Mainstream’ sources therefore (quite understandably) have seen this sort of objective treatment of ‘the issues themselves’ as the benchmark of good journalism.
The consequences of this shift have long been problematic. But this year, we have watched the media’s allergy for attacking the opinions of a significant voting population crowd out all other considerations, including the pursuit of truth as such. The laudable premise (that the media should report stories, not become stories themselves, that nonpartisanship is a shield against subjectivity) has now been exposed as an autoimmune deficiency.
In seeking to protect itself, the media is exterminating all of the life-sustaining mechanisms that are supposed to give it strength.
The problem of ‘how will this play?’ journalism
‘How will this play’ is the watchword for this sort of reporting, which has no problem with flights of fancy, so long as those flights operate within the terrain of valid speculation.
To opinionate on the baseline horribleness of Trump is impermissible, because reporters must remain distinct from advocates or pundits. By the same token, to opinionate on the fundamental grossness of Clinton’s attitude toward political power is also beyond the pale. But these topics are by no means inaccessible. They simply have to be unlocked through the mediating structure of popular opinion. When a reporter asks ‘how will this play,’ they filter the question through a legitimating device. It’s no longer the reporter making the argument; they are simply asking a question on the behalf of an imagined public.
However, once we recognized this function, it immediately becomes clear that Clinton and Trump will be differently exposed to its effects. Because, to be blunt, we already know how voters will respond to these stories. New evidence of his lies, his corruption, his abuses of power, his sexism, his racism, his utter cluelessness about matters of public policy, his lies about giving to charity, his stealing 9/11 recovery funds, his authoritarianism…his voters will shrug of the shoulders, or (more likely) with an attack on the media for daring to report these facts at all. Everyone else will see the new event as simply one more example of his manifest unfitness for office. In either case, the needle doesn’t move.
Result: at best, there’s no ‘news’ here, because all these things are ‘already baked into the cake.’ At worst, the reporter will actively shy away from poking the beast, because it would risk undermining the delicate latticework of ‘neutrality’ upon which the whole edifice of contemporary campaign coverage rests.
Meanwhile, the Clinton scandals produce endless coverage, not because they are more important (‘importance’ is verboten as a basis for selection – see this recent, horribly depressing theory of media responsibility from Liz Spayd), but because they can easily be integrated into the journalistic decision tree. While Clinton supporters are willing to tolerate her various problems, they also find them upsetting. This means a new discovery about emails, the Clinton Foundation, a cough, or virtually anything else is a ‘legitimate’ story—because both sides of the partisan divide will regard it as at least potentially newsworthy. And this is completely independent of the intrinsic news value of the issue.
The Tinkerbell effect and perverse faith in journalism
But surely not all Clinton stories work this way. In some cases, her partisans really are united in their utter dismissal of a story, in the same way that’s far more common with Trump supporters. So why doesn’t this quash stories in the same way?
The answer is both depressing and perverse. Put simply, the problem is that Clinton supporters, broadly speaking, seem to share the media’s fascination with how stories will play. As a result, they tend to regard media treatment as important and worthy of discussion on its own terms, even when the specific claims are flawed beyond repair.
That is: because they accept the media’s gatekeeping role, they therefore fear the power it can wield in judging the behavior of candidates. Somewhat bizarrely, then, their collective faith in the importance of objective adjudication actually helps to sustain the drumbeat of negative coverage. Like Tinkerbell, this sort of coverage can survive only so long as people believe in it. So as long as the media can identify partisans across the spectrum who regard a story as worthy of deeper investigation, the stories will continue to be written, and the wound will continue to bleed.
This is because the vast majority of campaign coverage isn’t actual coverage of the campaign itself, but is coverage of anticipated reactions.
Bring this back to Trump, and it becomes even clearer what’s going on. Think about Trump’s lies—about Iraq, about Libya, about his supposed charitable giving, about his tax policy, about literally everything else in the world. ‘The media’ has reported all these stories. They laid the facts on the table, and the issue is undisputed. From their perspective, that means their job is done. That story has reached completion. To hound him further on these topics would be gauche, partisan, unseemly. And it wouldn’t go anywhere.
Trump’s brazen refusal to believe in media norms, and the willingness of his supporters to follow him, renders the media toothless. The scripts they write—committed as they are to this sort of neutrality—provide no entry point for further attack.
The crisis of modern reporting is a crisis of crypto-punditry
So what’s really going on here is a fundamental blurring of media responsibilities, to serious detrimental effect. If you really want to know ‘how a story plays,’ you can simply wait a couple days and read the polls. Or you can wear out your shoe leather actually talking to voters. Both have limitations and problems, but both are capable of producing actual knowledge.
But pre-heated speculation by reporters, about whether something ‘raises questions’ or ‘casts a shadow’ or ‘might not play well’ serves no purpose and adds nothing to the conversation. It’s a form of crypto-punditry, which adds nothing to the conversation, which explains nothing about the candidates or the issues, which merely exists to translate argumentative attacks into objective-seeming language. And, importantly, which primarily works for attacks on Clinton, while mostly failing to support attacks on Trump.
What should the media be doing instead?
The deep irony of all this is that in attempting to sustain the principle of objective reporting, many members of the media are doing more than anyone to undermine and corrupt those values. The problem is emphatically not the premise of media as an external check on political culture. It can and must continue to play that role. The problem is the belief that existing techniques (which presume collective buy-in to the basic premises of civic engagement as truth-seeking) are utterly incapable of successfully characterizing a candidate and partisan base who reject those values.
The media doesn’t need to sacrifice its independence or aspirations toward neutrality to cover this election. They just need to recognize the existence of tools and techniques that go beyond crypto-punditry, which regards voter opinion as the endpoint of all political conversation. The goal is truth, but truth comes in many flavors and with many shades, and the media should be in the business of exploring them all.
Does Trump constitute a violation of historical norms? Of course he does. Does Trump represent a truly unprecedented degree of secrecy and double-dealing? Of course he does. Does Trump offer a breathtaking degree of cluelessness about basic incompetence that ought to give us pause about electing him grand marshal of a parade, much less president of the most powerful country in the world? Of course he does.
Those are truths, too. Those things don’t stop being important stories just because 40% of the country seems impervious to those truths. If anything, such commitment in and of itself is a massive story that reporters should be frothing at the bit to investigate.
There should be daily investigations asking people why Trump’s constant lying doesn’t seem to matter. There should be front-page exposes about the impossible breadth of Trump’s corruption. Every interviewer of Trump (or any surrogate) should pick a topic about which Trump has lied, and simply refuse to give it up. And if they refuse to do those things, in fear that it might make some people mad, they need to seriously ask themselves why that has become a decision rule for campaign coverage.
Why does this matter?
I say all of this not because I worry all that much that this coverage will swing the election. I don’t believe many voters are all that confused about the ultimate stakes, nor do I think that many people are open to persuasion in either direction. My concern is less for the winner and loser of the election and more for what this sort of coverage is doing to the fabric of our public political life.
One party nominating a lunatic is bad, but it isn’t a crisis in democracy. But it becomes a crisis when it infects those institutions of public life that should be working against the corrosion of our normative structures.
By dragging Trump up, the media legitimates his bigotry, grants it a sense of normalcy. This is terrible. But just as terrible is the way that the media drags Clinton down, grades her on the same terms as Trump, and encourages people to understand her flaws (real, but fundamentally normal) as on the same sort of plane as Trump’s. When they do so, they contract the scope of political possibility. They wipe away the transformative, the uplifting, the generous. They tell us that politics is nothing but disgusting people saying disgusting things for disgusting reasons.
That is a real problem.
And, in the final irony, by encouraging the population to think in those terms, they cultivate ever more anger and frustration about shared institutions of public culture, of which ‘the media’ itself is an important part.
“He’s not anti-American; he’s just against the bad parts of America.”
“They’re not attacking white people, just attacking the systems of racial exclusion.”
“Patriotism means criticizing the bad just as much as it means celebrating the good.”
“Of course all lives matter; but our system doesn’t reflect that premise, so saying ‘black lives matter’ is an effort to make the promise a reality.”
“It’s not an attack on cops; it’s an attack on bad, racist cops.”
These are common phrases, which come with all the best intentions. And they often do reflect reality.
But there’s a real danger here as well. Are you sure Colin Kaepernick isn’t anti-American? Are you sure that the black lives matter protester truly believes the American dream can be redeemed? Are you sure she sees herself as a patriot? Are you sure they value blue lives in general and are merely trying to criticize the bad practices of a few?
Or are you displacing onto them what you want their protest to mean?
This is an important question, and one that reveals the diverse ways in which the American cultural landscape is deracinated. The most obvious form of racial depoliticization is to attack protest as illegitimate. We see this when Colin Kaepernick is denied the right to speak—because he’s not ‘really’ black, because he’s rich, because he’s pampered, because he’s not protesting ‘in the right way’ and so forth. Here, the right of the speaker to bring the experience of black life into contact with white comfort is directly denied.
But this is not the only way in which race is rendered invisible. The same basic process takes place when well-meaning liberals take acts of protest and refigure them, shape them to fit their own narrative structures. To see protest purely as a form of ‘conscientious objection,’ as a call to honor the underlying promise of equality, is also a form of depoliticization. Against radical protest, we dissemble and domesticate. We impose a belief in the larger promise of racial harmony where such belief does not exist.
This act of translation is understandable. Conversation across the boundaries of experience is difficult under the best of circumstances. And the topic of race is hardly the best of circumstances. But this is precisely why we need to be careful.
Not every scream into the chasm of injustice is an invitation to build a bridge.
For those of us who believe in the possibility of rehabilitation, this is a difficult truth to face. It’s deeply uncomfortable to encounter a claim for which we can offer no reparation. Against such cries, we desperately look for points of entry. And this is what leads us to speak the truths (as we see them) that must be buried in their claims.
But in doing so, we replace their politics with ours. And in its own way, that’s equally an act of dismissal, a form of racial violence.
No good answers
So what is to be done? Should we simply stand aside? In some cases, maybe. But there are no pure choices here, no perfect answers. Detaching ourselves entirely from these conversations is clearly no solution. That simply replicates the initial problem: leaving protest to fend for itself within a market of ideas heavily stacked against it.
And after all, my point is certainly not that the goal of racial redemption is purely an invention. That promise is, quite emphatically, not the sole property of White America. And we will do well to honor and reflect the gestures toward this kind of politics which are being engaged. But we can only genuinely honor those efforts if we are capable of recognizing them as choices, rather than as the inevitable and necessary endpoint of racial critique.
So we do have a responsibility to stay engaged. We just have to be careful, willing to live with the discomfort that comes from knowing that nothing we can do is free from harm. We can be allies, friends, amplifications. We can try to lend the legitimacy afforded to us by our social position to those denied such legitimation, while also remaining attentive to the ways that this process always risks overwriting the very concerns we are hoping to assist.
And for any of that to work, it has to come from a place of really listening. Even when that means listening to perspectives we find deeply disquieting.