Clinton, Sanders, and the politics of affiliation

Let It Burn – The Orwells

The following two statements both seem true to me:

1) The success of Bernie Sanders as a presidential candidate means that if Hillary Clinton becomes president, she will be more likely to pursue a left-friendly agenda.

2) The success of Bernie Sanders as a presidential candidate is directly correlated with significant increases in left-wing distaste for the idea of a Hillary Clinton presidency.

#2 is anecdotal, so maybe I’m wrong there. But it sure feels correct.

The argument for #1 is pretty simple.  Basically, the success of Sanders means that Clinton-as-president would be obliged to govern in a more left-leaning direction than would otherwise have been the case. His campaign is mobilizing and solidifying commitments to a left-driven agenda, and she will therefore be obliged to do more to appease those interests and reflect the commitments of her base.

So, the better Bernie does, the better a Clinton presidency will be – at least for those who value the same things as Sanders.

But, of course, as he is seen as more viable, the differences between them take on far more meaning for people. And the power of affective political affiliation kicks into gear. Meaning: she becomes far less tolerable, because her positions now have to be judged against a new benchmark of political possibility.

And, at least judging by my social media landscape, that produces a lot of visceral anger about the idea of a Clinton presidency.

To be as clear as possible: my point isn’t that people can’t possibly hold a legitimate anti-Clinton position. Of course they can. It’s just worth remembering that politicians exist within context. And the context of 2016 means that a second Clinton presidency would look a heck of a lot different from the first one. And the better that Sanders does, the more true that becomes.

The crucial point here is pretty simple: if you’re ‘feeling the Bern,’ then you’re winning, and that will remain true even if your candidate doesn’t win the nomination (which I continue to believe is not all that likely).

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50 songs for 50 states: Maine

portland eastern promenade

Going To Maine – The Mountain Goats

Oh Maine, you are a beautiful state, but holy cow are there not any good songs about you.

My default for this project, when a specific state is extremely weak, is to fall back on the wonderful cushion of John Darnielle’s “Going to…” series. So far that hasn’t been necessary. Until today.

And unfortunately, while you can’t really go wrong with the Mountain Goats, this is hardly one of his strongest songs. It, quite rightly, was stashed at the very end of a rarities collection, and mostly lives up to that promise. It’s a perfectly cromulent song, but not a whole lot more.

Still, the only other options I could even think of were 1) Okkervil River’s “Maine Island Lovers,” which is pretty much the peak of their mopey songs about mopiness and I just cannot get into, and 2) that awful Tim McGraw song about Portland. Which, no.

So, here we are.

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Rubio won Iowa

Yes, yes, I know. He actually finished third.  And I get why it frustrates people to call the guy who finished third the winner. But it’s only frustrating if you insist on ignoring what the contest is actually about.

First things first, Rubio only ‘finished third’ by one metric: raw number of votes cast. But that’s not how delegates are assigned. In fact, Rubio was tied for second, since he and Trump were allocated the same number of delegates. What’s more, they each received a grand total of one (1) delegate less than Cruz. It’s now 8-7-7.  And that’s out of almost 2500 total delegates.

The point is: talking about who ‘won’ Iowa requires working from pointless fictions no matter how you describe it. Because in a proportional system, ‘winning’ just isn’t that important.

But the broader point is even more important. I’ll put it in bold to make it as clear as possible: the point is not to ‘win’ Iowa. The point is to win the nomination.

That’s why people keep saying Iowa was huge for Rubio. Because it was. It has nothing to do with ‘winning the night’ or any such nonsense. The point is that Iowa showed us several important things, many of which point toward an eventual Rubio victory.

  1. Trump underperformed his polls. That’s huge, because the whole case for Trump, Juggernaut has been built entirely on polling. But if those numbers are soft, then Trump is far weaker than people have been insisting.
  2. Further: if Trump can only pull 25% when people actually get to the polls and face the fact of decision, it suggests that the dynamics of the race haven’t really changed in fundamental ways. Has Trump affected the race? Of course he has. But (at least in Iowa), it doesn’t look like he’s upended the cart completely.  As Nate Silver notes, Iowa wasn’t just another little data point; it was the first time that actual voters voted.
  3. Cruz won Iowa, but Iowa is a great place for Cruz-like candidates. This is a state that picked Santorum and Huckabee in the past two cycles–at levels of support similar to what Cruz earned. If Cruz is just another variation on those guys, he’s very unlikely to win. Of course, he might be stronger than they were. But on the evidence of the night, it looks like he might simply be replicating the ‘evangelical-backed’ candidate model.
  4. Rubio picked up more votes alone than the entire rest of the ‘establishment’ candidates combined. That’s huge because it makes it far more likely that ‘the party’ (of the ‘party decides’ model) will start to settle on him as their best bet.

I mean, look: the case for Rubio has always been simple: he’s the candidate with the broadest appeal in the party. Once the party elites accept that fact, support will condense behind him and he’ll push everyone else aside.  Iowa provided a data point in support of that theory.

And, conversely, the case against Rubio has always been equally simple: things are different this time. The party doesn’t decide anymore. And Iowa provided a data point against that theory.

Would Rubio have preferred to win Iowa? Of course. But the goal isn’t to win Iowa. The goal is to win the nomination. And in that race, Rubio ‘won’ on Monday night, because he’s now closer to the nomination than anyone else.

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If the mountain won’t come to Sanders…

single-payer-demo

Details of the War – Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!

Seth Ackerman has a blistering piece in Jacobin, which goes on the warpath against Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias at Vox regarding their recent comments on Bernie Sanders. Ackerman’s thesis: the Vox folks are marshalling a cynical attack against Bernie, grounded in a growing fear emerging from the center of the Democratic Party about the genuinely radical possibilities embodied in the Sanders campaign. In the face of threats by their base to actually pursue single payer health care, he thinks, the establishment is striking back.

This argument isn’t entirely wrong. In fact, I’m generally sympathetic to the premise. Vox clearly stands for a certain portion of the center-left intellectual establishment. And Sanders clearly represents an oppositional force in left-wing politics.

But while Ackerman does a fine job of characterizing the dispute in general terms, man alive does he take a terrible route to get there.  It’s almost to the point that I can’t help but wonder if it’s a piece of elaborate performance art, in which literally every accusation hurled outwards is then mirrored by the accuser.

Because otherwise, I find it hard to understand how someone could write a piece with the basic thesis of: be more generous in your interpretation, which itself is so utterly without generosity or fairness.

One example: Ackerman is very unhappy with Klein “inexplicably dismissing the possibility of administrative savings,” and then cheekily references Klein’s work from 2007, noting that that back then he saw administrative savings as awesome. The implication being: Klein has been bought off, and no longer is interested in facts.

It’s a nice bit of rhetoric, but it’s totally unfair. It levels an accusation based on tone, and then hides the ball while purporting to reveal the facts. Because look: Administrative costs for health insurance in the US are approximately $1000 per capita vs. $300 or so for Canada. So let’s assume that Sanders’ plan brings those costs down to Canadian levels. That’s great! That’s $700 savings per capita, by Sanders’ numbers.

Okay, let’s check on the overall savings he promises. Oh, it’s $5000.

So why is it unfair for Klein to point out that Sanders still needs the vast majority of his cost savings to come from other sources??

A second example: the entire broadside against Yglesias is hypocrisy-based. Basically: He used to say vagueness was okay back when his boy Obama was the vague one, but now that Bernie isn’t spilling the details, he’s hyper-critical. And there is a certain rhetorical force to that point, but A) people are surely allowed to change their minds over the course of eight years and B) it’s not like it’s impossible to identify a gap between ‘vagueness is okay’ and ‘details are totally unnecessary.’

But those two objections aren’t even my real issue here. What really bugs me is that this charge of hypocrisy so fundamentally misses the point of the Yglesias argument. Which isn’t ‘moar details!!!!’, but is a far more specific critique that Sanders seems fundamentally uninterested in filling in the details. Which is very different.

Ackerman seems at least vaguely aware of this fact:

Warming to his theme, Yglesias spends a paragraph dilating on the complexities of administering Britain’s National Health Service (a different system than the one Sanders is proposing), and then after reviewing those intricate issues, complains that “Sanders’s ‘plan’ doesn’t cover any of this ground.” Worse, he says, Sanders’s “worldview” is unable even to “accommodate the questions”; for the Senator, “the only relevant issue is ‘whether we have the guts to stand up to the private insurance companies and all of their money.’”

But there’s something missing from this paragraph.  Namely: any actual answer to these charges.  Apparently, for Ackerman, these statements are so obviously foolish that simply giving them voice reveals their vacuousness.  But these aren’t rude asides from Yglesias, or evidence of some irrational disdain for Sanders. This the core of his argument.

 

 

His criticism is that Sanders has an overly simplistic worldview, which considers passion and commitment sufficient, which actively eschews the sort of nitty-gritty work that comes from having to build complex policy instruments, under less than perfect conditions. Sanders, that is, seems to believe that if we just care enough about an issue, that’s enough.

I think that concern is probably overstated (though I do have some sympathy for it). But it’s an argument that is specific to Sanders, and which Yglesias makes repeatedly in the linked piece.  It’s certainly not an unfair issue to raise.

So it’s bizarre to write a 6000 word screed, and still not find time to actually answer it.

One final example. Ackerman writes:

How could Klein have felt such warmth back then for the single-payer systems of Canada or France (let alone Britain, with its socialized NHS!), while being so hostile to Bernie Sanders’s plan now, when the latter claims to draw its inspiration specifically from the former?

If true, that would be damning. But…it’s pretty clearly not true. I went back and scoured the Klein piece, and I found no evidence of hostility to single-payer systems. Quite the opposite. His piece reads like a general endorsement of such systems, combined with a political argument that Sanders isn’t going to win many converts unless he provides details.

The point being: single payer is broadly popular (it polls right around 50%, sometimes a fair bit higher depending on how the question is asked), but that popularity is pretty thin. Basically: it’s got lots of tepid supporters, but they tend to evaporate when the rubber meets the road.

So if Sanders really wants to move that needle, he’s going to have to take that problem on directly, not push it to the side.

In all of this, it’s absolutely fair to say (as Ackerman does) that ‘most other countries in the West have better health care systems than us, and we should be more like them.’ But it’s also fair to point out that the American public, on the whole, is extremely allergic to change in health care policy, and isn’t going to be knocked off their perch by ‘it works in lots of other places.’  Remember how much flak Obama got for ‘if you like your plan, you can keep it’? The single payer debates multiples that times 10,000. And that’s a genuine problem, one that a candidate who really cares about making this policy probably should engage with.

As someone who likes Sanders a lot, I wish he’d do more to fill in those gaps. Because right now, as much as I like him in theory, I have a hard time actually believing in his political revolution, precisely because it’s grounded in the faith that being right is sufficient, and that all our failures are simply due to the folks in charge not being steadfast enough.

And on this point, it doesn’t strike me as entirely coincidental that the blistering attack on the Vox folks comes from Jacobin magazine.

Because this primary campaign really is fundamentally a debate about whether to consolidate existing gains, or to continue pressing forward in service of revolutionary ideals.

More thoughts on that analogy forthcoming, if I can find the time.

In the meantime, let me just close by saying: I like single payer. I think the US should have single payer. I’m glad it’s part of the conversation in this campaign. I wish it were a bigger part, and I don’t think the Vox position is unfair on that point. I think they also wish it were a bigger part. And they’re looking for evidence that Sanders wants to make it a bigger part. I’m looking for that, too. I hope to find it.

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I’m up and doing circles

Are You Ten Years Ago – Tegan and Sara

This almost went past without me noticing, but today is the 10 year anniversary of my very first post here (my top albums of 2005 list).

It’s genuinely crazy to think I’ve been writing stuff here for a full decade. Thanks to everyone who’s stopped by over the years. I lost a big chunk of audience with the switch away from Blogger in 2010 (and the decline in frequency of my posting), but I still get a hundred or so people coming by every day, and it’s genuinely an honor to know that people are coming by to read what I have to say.  Especially compared to the tiny number of eyeballs that will ever find their way to my academic work…

And hey, speaking of which, if you’re interested in justice and political theory, I’ve got an article in the current issue of Law, Culture and the Humanities.

Anyways, here’s to another decade around here. Thanks everyone.

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Enough with this ‘natural born citizen’ nonsense

ted_cruz_toddlers_stacked-636524

Let’s Be Natural – The Rutles

The arguments about this ‘natural born citizen’ stuff are really getting ridiculous. We all had a good laugh about it, but the joke has really run it’s course. And yet all too many people keep insisting that we need to take this seriously.  Frankly, it’s getting a little embarrassing.

The most recent example, which really got my goat, is from Paul Campos. He says there’s a difference between ‘real’ and ‘fake’ legal arguments, and that this counts as a ‘real’ one. And sure, it’s ‘real’ in the sense that if you squint really hard you can argue your way into calling it plausible, if you’re willing to twist our basic values into a pretzel to serve your political interests.

But c’mon. Yes, there is a difference between ‘real’ and ‘fake’ legal arguments. But there’s also a distinction between ‘real’ arguments and ‘incredibly stupid’ ones. And this is an incredibly stupid argument.

Obviously there is a tiny frisson of pleasure that comes from noting that the knock-down argument against this silly position depends on using legal interpretive models that Cruz and his friends pretend to hate. But that’s not a good justification for insisting that there is in fact a credible legal argument here.

And all the folks on the left who insist on pretending that their interest in this doesn’t have everything to do with the fact that Ted Cruz is the most eminently punchable man on the planet…well, they should be ashamed of themselves.

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Top 30 albums of 2015

30. Eternal SummersGold and Stone

Dream pop with a punk spirit and a lot of sharp edges – a genre that seemed to explode in 2015. There will be a few more artists later on the list who also operate in that field, and quite a few others that I enjoyed but who didn’t quite make the cut. This one suffers a bit from top-heaviness; it’s got six fantastic songs and four totally forgettable ones. Could have been the best EP of the year with a little editing.

Highlights: Build your EP from Together or Alone, Play Dead, The Roses, Bloom, Gold and Stone, Come Alive, and don’t worry about the rest.

29. Jason IsbellSomething More Than Free

It’s a testament to Isbell’s incredible talents that this record could be a crushing disappointment and still manage to make the list. I’m not sure he’s capable of writing a bad song, but there also isn’t much that’s particularly good here either. A few lines dropped in here and there that shine like beacons, a few melodic twists that cut to the bone. If I can extract myself from my expectations, I can see a perfectly good record here, but it’s hard not to compare it to his previous work and be a little bummed.

Highlights: Something More Than Free, 24 Frames, Speed Trap Town, Hudson Commodore

28. James McMurtryComplicated Game

It’s kind of incredible that one family could produce two men so adept at telling stories, but in two very different ways. It’s not just about the medium involved (Larry working with the novel, James the song), but also the manner. Where his father’s novels are densely populated and intricately plotted, the younger McMurtry tells so much through absences, inspiring the imagination through single lines that carry the inflection of whole lives. There’s the old couple, looking back to notice that “We turned into our parents before we were out of our teens.” There’s the soldier, set free from the hell of war, only to return home and realize “There ain’t much between the Pole and South Dakota / And barbed wire won’t stop the wind.” And there’s the desperate crabbers, just barely scraping by, and:

Staring down that long, steep slope
We gather round and we hold out hope
Because at the end of the rope
There’s a little more rope
Most times

Highlights: South Dakota, Long Island Sound, Copper Canteen, Carlisle’s Haul

27. Lord HuronStrange Trails

I like Lord Huron, but they’ve got one of the worst cases of ‘all of your songs sound exactly the same’ I’ve ever encountered. Reverb-heavy Americana with a galloping beat: check, check, and check again. It’s too bad, because I find myself so frustrated at their inability to step even one tiny inch outside of the box that I sometimes forget to notice that their single song is pretty damn catchy. See also: Best Coast – California Nights.

Highlights: Cursed, Meet Me in the Woods, Fool for Love, Frozen Pines

26. LogicThe Incredible True Story

Logic is one of my favorite rappers these days. His language is crisp, his intonation precise, and the production is excellent. These songs flow easily and build with grace and style. But speaking of records that could have used some editing, holy cow did this one need someone to come in with a scalpel (or even a machete). Where it’s good, it’s very good, but there just isn’t the depth of resources here needed to fill out the 18 sprawling tracks. I particularly could have done without the ‘scenes.’ Cut down to a sleek 10 tracks, this probably would have slotted into my top 15 albums of the year.

Highlights: Young Jesus, Run It, Paradise, Innermission

25. Vanessa Peters – With the Sentimentals

Another great album from one of my favorite artists. This is a decidedly low-key affair, probably the most classically ‘folk’ record from her yet—full of simple songs that draw you in quickly and leave you feeling light on your feet all day. The arrangements are light and relatively sparse, but full of warmth and joy. It’s a quiet and cheerful confidant—who doesn’t make demands but is just there to listen and smile and keep you company through the dark winter days. A friendly voice in my ear as I garden or cook, a whisper of sunshine on my dark and dreary commute. These songs are tender, casually-constructed, and intimate. They touch on heavy subjects and strike some deep emotional chords, but they do so with such an extraordinary gentleness and sense of good spirit that it never risks feeling oppressive.

Highlights: Call You All The Time, Pacific Street, Getting By, My Choice

24. Mark KnopflerTracker

Probably the most relaxed record Knopfler has ever released. His storytelling is immaculate, as ever, and the quiet confines give him a chance to let the songs breathe. It’s no towering work of genius, like his peaks in the Dire Straits days, nor is it a bold entry into the annals of blues or folk, like some of his other solo works. But for all its lack of pretensions, I find myself drawn back more and more, luxuriating in the sound of an old master comfortable in his environs.

Highlights: River Towns, Laughs and Jokes and Drinks and Smokes, Beryl, Basil

23. InventionsMaze of Woods

Inventions is a joint project between Matthew Cooper from Eluvium and Mark Smith from Explosions in the Sky, and it absolutely delivers on the premise. But it’s not simply a combination. In the collaboration, they find new echoes in both of their sounds, and offer something darker, more twisted, but also more beautiful for all of its strange perturbations. Not quite electronica, but not quite anything else, either. The closest analogue I can think of is 65daysofstatic, but even that doesn’t quite match up. Maybe if 65daysofstatic was covering Stars of the Lid.

Highlights: Wolfkids, Springworlds, Slow Breathing Circuit

22. John MorelandHigh on Tulsa Heat

Moreland embodies the quiet wisdom of the world-weary, the voice of a generation who has grown up doubting whether this world really has that much to offer them, but still insists on finding reasons to care. He’s a Townes Van Zandt for the 21st century, not quite as mercurial in his genius, but equally capable of finding just the right pitch, just the right lyric, just the right catch in his voice to make everything right true. By far the biggest weakness of the album, however, is in the production. Moreland is at his best solo, just voice and guitar and audience, but the effort to transform these songs into full arrangements doesn’t quite stick. The percussion, in particular, is heavy-handed to the point of distraction. There is more than enough quality here to make me set those concerns aside, but I’d love to hear him slightly more unfiltered.

Highlights: American Flags in Black & White, Cleveland County Blues, High on Tulsa Heat, White Flag

21. Vanessa CarltonLiberman

Yes, that Vanessa Carlton. And yes, it’s a great album. You can hear just enough of the melodic sensibilities that made A Thousand Miles such a huge success, but while that song evoked bright colors and bleached sunscapes, this record is a study in the many shades of gray. But for all that, it retains a strong emotional core. Listening to it, I find myself transported to the Yorkshire moors of Wuthering Heights, walking amidst a grim and rocky land, full of doubt and wonder.

Highlights: Nothing Where Something Used To Be, Willows, Blue Pool, River

20. Floating PointsElaenia

A bewitching hybrid of jazz, electronica, post-rock, and funk. It’s endlessly provocative, with strange twists and turns to delight and surprise, with a hint of the improvisational spirit drawn from its jazz roots. But each movement necessitates a counter-turn, which resolves and then settles the senses. At least until the finale, where Peroration Six throws all constraints aside and simply rises, rises, rises, until like Icarus it all suddenly crashes without warning.

Highlights: Silhouettes (I, II & III), Peroration Six, For Marmish, Nespole

19. Say Lou LouLucid Dreaming

I’ve been eagerly awaiting this record for a couple years, ever since I first heard Julian and went out of my mind with how perfect it is. And each new track only heightened my excitement. However, it turns out that they perfectly identified all the best songs, and released them as singles, so when the album actually dropped and I finally heard the remainders I was…a little underwhelmed. Still, there are no BAD songs here, by any stretch. So while it doesn’t live up to the promise, there’s still plenty of new material to enjoy.

Highlights: Julian, Everything We Touch, and Beloved (the three previously released songs) are by far the best. But apart from those, you also won’t go wrong with Nothing But a Heartbeat, Hard for a Man, or Glitter

18. Modest MouseStrangers to Ourselves

I’ve resigned myself to the fact that MY Modest Mouse is fifteen years in the rearview mirror and is never coming back again. It’s been tough to let that band go, and to not judge the newer iteration of Isaac and company through the lens of nostalgia, but I think I’m just about ready to welcome the band back into my life as a new entity. Strangers to Ourselves isn’t a perfect album by any stretch. Many of the songs simply don’t work, there’s a ton of bloat, and even some of the good songs feel compressed to the point of asphyxiation. But in spite of those concerns, I find quite a lot to love here.

Highlights: Lampshades on Fire is a glorious stomper of a song, The Ground Walks, With Time In A Box is a barn-burner, and Ansel perfectly conveys the impossibility of fully understanding the meaning of loss.

17. Radical DadsUniversal Coolers

It seems churlish to stick them with the label ‘indie rock,’ given the way the term has become something of a floating signifier in musical criticism. But in describing them that way, I want to evoke the whole range of possibilities. To me, indie rock is best expressed as an aspirational style: one that tries to meld together the intimacy of a lo-fi recording and the energy of the classic rock show. It’s the Beatles rooftop show, which tries to split the difference between their studio recordings and the arena shows filled with screaming fans. It’s Sonic Youth, trying to set your spirits free by wringing the noise of their guitars. It’s Death Cab, trying to particularize the universal and universalize the particular. It’s a few people in a room, smashing their drums and strumming their guitars, and asking us to care just a little bit. I hear all of that in Radical Dads. And while the reference probably won’t mean much to most of you, to me they sound a heck of a lot like The Sinister Turns. Which longtime readers will know is high praise indeed.

Highlights: In The Water, Slammer, Cassette Brain, Desperado Dude Lens

16. The Corner LaughersThe Matilda Effect

It’s got the strong melodic spine of northern soul, the effervescent delight of your favorite Sarah Records bands, and the joyful vibe of every great jangle-pop song you’ve ever heard. And, within this general recipe they manage to discover quite a few diverse sounds and tones. A twinkly beat here, with a rousing gallop to follow, and then a sweeping guitar solo, all topped off with endlessly clever lyrical turns. And the electric ukulele has never sounded so good! If you like your music dark and lugubrious, this band won’t be for you. But if you’ve got any sort of sweet tooth, you’re in for a treat.

Highlights: Fairytale Tourist, Queen of the Meadow, Midsommar, Martha (Cincinnati, 1914)

15. Stranger CatIn the Wilderness

A pastiche of electronic textures, put to service in the development of an almost orchestral sort of chamber pop. These songs shine like beacons in the cold night skyline: an invitation to something beautiful, yet impossibly distant.

Highlights: Sirens, Ecstatic Energy, Unzip Your Skin, I Lost It

14. CHVRCHESEvery Open Eye

A strong sophomore effort, which firmly cements them in the upper echelons of contemporary synthpop. Their songs shine and gleam, in a way that virtually no one else can manage. And while the peaks aren’t quite as high as they were on The Bones of What You Believe, the valleys are fewer and less extreme (apart from the inexplicable High Enough To Carry You Over, which I’m just going to pretend doesn’t exist). I don’t remember where I read it, but one review analogized this record to Jimmy Eat World’s Bleed American, and ever since I saw that, I can’t get the comparison out of my head. Obviously they’re drawing on different 80s influences, but even drilling down to a song-by-song comparison, they match up eerily well. But as an unrepentant lover of Bleed American, I have no complaints.

Highlights: Clearest BlueEmpty Threat, Leave a Trace

13. Royal HeadacheHigh

Ten songs, less than 30 minutes long, straight from the garage to your ears, this is punk rock the way it was meant to be done. Great hooks, which hit you hard and then show themselves the exit before you have time to realize what’s happened. I hear a lot of the Vibrators, a lot of early Oasis, a bit of Blur, a bit of The Smiths, and some Cock Sparrer to tie the whole room together. But still, despite the very simple shared ingredients, each song feels distinct and vital in its own way. The only real misstep is Wouldn’t You Know, the obligatory ‘ballad,’ which isn’t terrible but feels inessential in the way the rest of these songs absolutely do not.

Highlights: CarolinaLittle Star, High, My Own Fantasy

12. Hop AlongPainted Shut

There’s a lot to love about this record: gritty melodies, slashing guitar work, some incredibly tight percussion, but ultimately it has to come back to Frances Quinlan’s extraordinary voice, rough as sandpaper, but beautiful in its cragginess. The clear highlight is Waitress, where she crackles with enough energy to level a small city, but still somehow manages to communicate a deep sense of vulnerability. Then there’s the lovely I Saw My Twin, which diagnoses the uncomfortable dynamics of class without feeling the slightest bit didactic, or Texas Funeral, which resides somewhere between punk and the classic rock, or Horseshoe Crabs, which slides along a whisky-soaked groove, just waiting for the brawl to break out so it can land a few good swings. If you like rock and roll, in just about any form, you’ll probably find something to love here.

Highlights: Waitress, I Saw My Twin, Sister Cities, Horseshoe Crabs

11. HamiltonCast Recording

This won’t be news to anyone who has been paying attention to pop culture commentators over the last few months, but the Hamilton musical is pretty awesome. I’m not QUITE willing to declare it the act of pure genius that some have already bestowed, but it’s not that far away. The story of Hamilton’s career, and the surrounding political climate, is fascinating in its own right, but is given far more depth and emotion by unifying the personal and political. It brings the Founding generation to life in a way that was entirely unexpected, but feels inevitable once you’ve heard it.

Highlights: Cabinet Battle #1, Satisfied, Right Hand Man, Yorktown, Cabinet Battle #2

10. All DogsKicking Every Day

Waxahatchee has been getting the lion’s share of the praise, but to my ears, this record from All Dogs is the far superior version of the pretty-with-an-edge 90s throwback singer-songwriter genre. What can I say? I’m a sucker for a great melody, and this record has got ’em in spades. Think Juliana Hatfield or Liz Phair or the Lemonheads or That Dog or Hole. In an alternate universe, this record is the soundtrack to 10 Things I Hate About You.

Highlights: The whole first half of the record is absolutely spot on, with my particular favorites being Your Mistakes, How Long, and Sunday Morning

9. HelenThe Original Faces

Helen is the dream pop/shoegaze band fronted by Liz Harris from Grouper, making this the third year in a row that she has made the top 10 on this list. Unsurprisingly, for a Liz Harris project, the heart of this record is its balance between voice and atmospherics. In places, the songs almost feel tossed off, but to my ears there’s something liberating about the looseness of this record. You get the feeling that these aren’t even ‘songs’ exactly, so much as they are the emanations of an adjacent harmonic structure, which only occasionally crosses through our own. And yet, for all that, there is a clear pop structure to these tracks. It’s pop music for those who’d rather be buried underneath the noise than be expected to surf the waves, but pop music nonetheless.

Highlights: AllisonDying All the Time, Grace, The Original Faces

8. EskimeauxO.K.

I’m hardly the first person to notice it, but Eskimeaux is just about the perfect example of an artist taking close 4-track bedroom recordings and translating them to a full-bodied studio experience, without losing ANY of the intimacy. Listen to them on headphones, alone in a quiet room, and these songs feel like gentle caresses. Put them on your speakers and roll down the windows, and they feel propulsive. This is indie pop at its finest.

Highlights: Everything You Love, Broken Necks, Sparrow, I Admit I’m Scared

7. WorriersImaginary Life

For lack of a better term, let’s call it punk. The sound is more finely crafted and precise (the record was produced by Laura Jane Grace from Against Me!, and it definitely sounds like it) than your classic punk records, but retains all of the political aggression. These songs are tightly constructed and perfectly realized, whether they’re critiquing police violence, the limitations of gendered pronouns, or just talking “of life and love and ambitions for nothing in particular.” This is a record documenting the feeling of loss that separates ambitious youth and frustrated adulthood. It’s full of the fears and worries that defines that period, but also full of the joyful moments, and the sense of accomplishment that come from the realization that you’re starting to truly discover yourself.

Highlights: Yes All Cops, They / Them / Theirs, Glutton for Distance, Life During Peacetime

6. Moving PanoramasOne

A truly beautiful record, one that evokes Galaxie 500, the Cocteau Twins, Slowdive, and about a hundred other bands you probably love just as much. Basically, this is the best Labrador Records album I’ve heard in years, except they’re from Austin.

Highlights: Always, Radar, Believe, Harmony

5. Joan ShelleyOver and Even

Many genres have die-hard fans, who rhapsodize over the brilliance of the style. But where are the evangelists for the unassuming, the homespun, the contemplative? No, these songs don’t reach out through the speakers and force you to listen. They don’t demand your attention or change your life. But they do something much more important: they remind you to live each day well, to sympathize, to share the good and the bad with those who love you, and to find a way through every bad feeling. Joan Shelley isn’t breaking any new boundaries. Her songs are the sort of simple, joyous ones that people have been playing for as long as any of us can remember. But very few, in all that time, have done it so well.

Highlights: No More Shelter, Wine and Honey, Not Over By Half, Easy Now

4. Sleater-KinneyNo Cities To Love

When a much-loved band returns after a long hiatus, it’s always felt with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Usually they broke apart for a reason, because the creative spirit wasn’t there anymore, or they’d simply run out of productive angles to explore with one another. So the reunion invites us to wonder: is there really anything new left in the well, or is this simply an effort to revive past glories? It’s actually quite rare for these things to succeed, but thankfully Sleater-Kinney are an exception. This isn’t their best record (The Woods, Dig Me Out, and One Beat are all better, I think), but it’s also not that far away. They’ve still got the classic mixture of tight melodies, angular guitars, and thumping drums, but have tied those things together into far more traditional rock structures. The result is still clearly Sleater-Kinney, but a new iteration, and one that I have enjoyed greatly all year.

Highlights: A New Wave, Bury Our Friends, Hey Darling, Price Tag

3. Mimi PageThe Ethereal Blues

Orchestral sweeps, trip-hop beats, lyrics that speak of a deep well of sadness, but which elevate rather than weigh down. I hear tinges of Enya, of Massive Attack, of Goldfrapp, of Morcheeba. The closest reference, though, has to be the early Tori Amos. But (and I say this as a huge Tori Amos fan) this record is better than anything Tori managed. It’s deep, immaculately produced, full of rich sensations, textures, and melodies as uncanny as they are gorgeous. It’s also truly an album to be experienced in totality. For all the wondrous beauty of the individual components, the true genius is in the careful layering of possibilities from song to song. With each new essay, fresh angles are revealed, more possibilities uncovered. One track is mesmerizingly beautiful, spare, delicate: an invitation. The next brings tension, apprehensiveness, even fear. And then the senses twine together, introducing a spirit of disquiet, and then an invitation to resolution. The process is dialectical: endlessly provocative, eternally haunting. Each time I return, it begins again, and I find new reasons to love it.

Highlights: Time, Human Hurricane, The Ethereal Blues, Always and Forever, Singing in the Dark

2. Sufjan StevensCarrie & Lowell

There really isn’t much to say about Sufjan that hasn’t already been said, to be honest. Back in my very first post on this blog (just a shade under 10 years ago), I referred to his music as ‘devastating beautiful’ and this album does nothing to dissuade me of that opinion. In many ways, it’s the perfect condensation of what he’s offered us over the years. As delicate as Seven Swans, as emotional as Michigan, as exquisite as Illinois, as adventurous as Adz. But the feelings. Oh, the feelings.

Did you get enough love, my little dove
Why do you cry?
And I’m sorry I left, but it was for the best
Though it never felt right
My little Versailles

What else could I possibly add?

Highlights: Should Have Known Better, No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross, Fourth of July, Eugene, John My Beloved, Blue Bucket of Gold

1. GrimesArt Angels

Tour de force doesn’t even begin to describe this record. This is the work of a genius, at the peak of her powers, flexing her muscles and discovering that the laws of physics no longer constrain her. Anything is possible in her hands, from bold and bright pop (California) to the jagged edges of a concealed blade (Kill V. Maim) to a moment of pure and unadulterated beauty (the Realiti demo). Or, rather than dabbling, why not mix it all together into a singular creation: the perfect dance track, which sings to us through the dimensions, and speaks of potential as yet beyond the reach of our philosophy (Flesh Without Blood). In an era where ‘pop’ and ‘art’ and ‘rock’ find themselves enmeshed in a Stately Quadrille, Grimes rises like a Colossus above the shifting terms and phrases of engagement, looking down with disdain upon those who waste their time fighting about authenticity and facsimile. Whatever music is, or should be, it’s here, and there’s no better time to join the bandwagon.

Highlights: Realiti (demo), Flesh Without Blood, Kill V. Maim, California, Belly of the Beat, Butterfly, Venus Fly, Scream, the whole damn record

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I can see a better time, when all our dreams come true

better time

Fairytale Of New York – The Pogues

A prayer hurled into the night. The end of all things, and a promise that a new world might yet be built. All that is lost, all that is still possible. On this Christmas Day, let us not forget the pain and the loss, but find a way to love in spite of it all.

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Top 50 songs of 2015

grimes realiti

50 songs hardly seems enough for such a great year in music, but I’ve edited myself down a bit to try and offer only the cream of the crop. As always, only one song per artist (else a certain Canadian would occupy about nine spots on the list), and I make no claim that these are the ‘best’ songs by some objective standard. These are just the ones I loved the most.

Spotify list (mostly complete) available here.

50. Pedestrian At Best – Courtney Barnett
I’m not a big fan of speak-singing, but Courtney Barnett can pull it off. I am a fan of rock and roll, and Courtney Barnett can pull that off, too.

49. 6PM In New York – Drake (youtube link)
In some ways, 2015 was the year of Drake, and it all felt like a big nothingburger to me. But this song, for some reason, really struck a chord with me. It’s full of these delightful little koans…all in the service of delivering what is basically a solid five minute long burn.

48. No No No – Beirut
The rest of the album was a bit lightweight, but this song would have slid very nicely onto The Rip Tide.

47. Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind – Rhiannon Giddens
I wrote up a comment on this song that read: “It’s almost impossible to believe this isn’t an Emmylou or Dolly cover.” And then I checked and no joke, it is a Dolly cover. Conclusion: my powers of perception are excellent, but my familiarity with Dolly’s catalog is wholly insufficient!

46. Nostalgic – Kelly Clarkson (youtube link)
I can’t be the only one to notice that the best Kelly Clarkson song in a decade is called ‘Nostalgic,’ can I?

45. The Things I Regret – Brandi Carlile
In general, I miss the old, folkier Carlile of her first couple albums, but this song is pretty irresistible.

44. WTF – Missy Elliott (youtube link)
I kind of missed out on Missy Elliott back in the day, so I’m taking full advantage of her reappearance to acquaint myself with what I missed.

43. Bound for Rio Grande – Red River Dialect
They build a lovely acoustic drone, almost in the style of William Tyler, but then layer some fiddles on top, and you end up with an old sea shanty filtered through the lens of Nickel Creek.

42. South Dakota – James McMurtry
Thank god for James McMurtry for releasing this song before I got to South Dakota on my 50 songs for 50 states project. Spoiler alert: this one blows all the other SD songs away.

41. And Still They Move – Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld
The violin is a truly amazing instrument.

40. I Remember – Bully
108 seconds worth of memories, condensed into a little ball and then lit on fire.

39. All Meanness Be Gone – Tica Douglas
Another brilliant song from the always-brilliant Tica Douglas. Time passes, every rough edge sands away, and we pause to ask ourselves if it really meant anything at all.

38. You Satellite – Wilco
The story with each new Wilco album is almost always the same: I start underwhelmed, but force myself through a few listens until one song begins to rise out and earns my devotion. This time around it’s ‘You Satellite,’ which was thoroughly unprepossessing at first listen, but the more I heard of it, the more I wanted to descend into the maelstrom.

37. Yes All Cops – Worriers
“They’ll only give it up when we rip it from their cold dead hands.”

36. Bad Art & Weirdo Ideas – Beach Slang
Reminds me a lot of Appleseed Cast circa 2001.

35. Wolfkids – Inventions
Is there a such a thing as the multi-dimensional pop song? Because if not, I think they might have just invented a new genre.

34. Nothing Where Something Used To Be – Vanessa Carlton
It’s strange that sometimes it takes the wisdom of years to finally understand what it means to be young.

33. Return to the Moon – El Vy
Very spotty album; very good song. I could listen to Matt Berninger read the phonebook.

32. In The Water – Radical Dads
A little bit Sonic Youth (circa Daydream Nation), a little bit Built to Spill (circa There’s Nothing Wrong With Love). Take the ingredients, mix ’em up in your garage, add a few spices, and enjoy.

31. Your Mistakes – All Dogs
Sad songs and pretty chords are selling this year.

30. Call You All The Time – Vanessa Peters
Jaunty and fun and beautifully sunny, the sort of ‘breakup’ song that we almost never hear: one that remembers fondly but accepts the necessity of moving on, which acknowledges the breakdowns and recriminations but which doesn’t dwell on them.

29. Heartsigh – Purity Ring
I’m sure there are limits to the human capacity to build perfect pop confections out of bleeps and bloops, but we aren’t there yet.

28. Everything You Love – Eskimeaux
Hard to pick a single track from an album full of great songs, but at the moment, this one is my favorite.

27. Cabinet Battle #1 – Hamilton
Slightly anachronistic in its treatment of slavery, but the burn is so good that I’ll more than forgive it. Matt Yglesias at Vox had a pretty good explainer on the background here.

26. Allison – Helen
An homage to the impossible opacity of pop music.

25. American Flags in Black & White – John Moreland
If you like what the title of the song promises, you’re going to like the song, too.

24. Together or Alone – Eternal Summers
That bit at 1:38. Oh hell yes.

23. Empty Threat – CHVRCHES
As always, it’s basically impossible to pick one CHVRCHES song to stand above the rest. You could just as easily substitute Clearest Blue or Leave A Trace and lose almost nothing in the transition. They are the current masters of the verse/chorus transition.

22. Steamroller (demo) – Phoebe Bridgers
What can I say? I’ve always been a sucker for a girl with a guitar and a broken heart. A more polished take on this song that made it onto the b-side of her debut single ‘Killer’ (also a contender for this list), but this is my favorite version, precisely because it’s so raw.

21. Sagres – The Tallest Man On Earth
Kristian Matsson has always seemed to invite Dylan comparisons, but this time around it’s the Dylan of the 80s, dabbling in synths and big, bright production notes. But unlike Dylan himself, this song manages to incorporate those influences without any hiccups along the way. The result is gorgeous and heartfelt.

20. Sirens – Stranger Cat
Dreamy electro-pop which promises accompany you on your long slow descent into madness.

19. Chrissie Hynde – Butch Walker
“All I got right now / Is all I want / Chrissie Hynde, singing through a blown dash speaker / About Ohio” – God, what a line.

18. A New Wave – Sleater-Kinney
Sleater-Kinney is back and holy crap does it feel great.

17. West Coast – Fidlar
Reckless, drunken roadtrips to the edge of destruction have never sounded so fun.

16. Where the Night Goes – Josh Ritter
The finest tasting folk/rock vinaigrette that crossed my lips this year.

15. Beyond Love – Beach House
A great example of the way they can marry sepia tones and gauzy textures to produce something that feels both new and achingly old at the same time.

14. Lifted Up (1985) – Passion Pit
The album as a whole was a bit of a dud, but this song is everything.

13. Feel the Lightning – Dan Deacon
As far as I can tell, Dan Deacon is basically a walking dance party. I imagine him walking into a bank to set up his mortgage and everyone jumping around throwing glitter bombs while he’s like ‘hey, everyone, can we chill for a second? I need to discuss my interest rate.’

12. River Towns – Mark Knopfler
Knopfler paints like an old master, with quick brushstrokes that convey emotions with inch-perfect precision. He can do so much with the guitar that it’s often easy to forget just how great his lyrics are. Here, on one of the quietest and simplest tracks he’s laid down, we get a perfect reminder of those talents.

11. Waitress – Hop Along
That voice. Unbelievable.

10. Lampshades on Fire – Modest Mouse
This came out in late-2014, and I didn’t think much of it at the time. Didn’t even make my list for last year. But holy cow did I miss the boat on that one. Thankfully, the full album release got me listening more closely, and I’m sneaking it into the top 10 here.

9. Carolina – Royal Headache
The first, perfect bite into a crisp apple. The delightful crunch, the sweetness on your tongue. Everything that’s great about summer and rock and roll.

8. Fairytale Tourist – The Corner Laughers
All strident pace and quintessential backbeat, surrounded by a perfectly realized harmonic jangle, and lyrics that cover the range from Hansel and Gretel to Cleopatra to snuggling up with your cats at night. And hey, why not some ‘ba-ba-ba’s to tie everything together?

7. Billions of Eyes – Lady Lamb
A rollicking, rousing, lurching burst of a song. Conversational and delightful beyond all reasonable expectations, it just keeps getting better and better as the story grows and the scope widens.

6. Dime Store Cowgirl – Kacey Musgraves
What was already a great chorus is elevated to inner-circle level with “I’m still the girl from Golden…” Maybe the best bridge of the year, too. It’s almost unfair for one song to contain so many great pieces.

5. Always – Moving Panoramas
Gentle guitar lines that wash over you in waves. Warm melodies wrapped lightly around beautiful voices. Deceptively simple chord progressions that feel immediately intimate and familiar, but still fresh and exciting. It’s the sound of a dream that stays with you all day.

4. Time – Mimi Page
Every single second of this song is beautiful, but “I’m just a fleeting sigh / In a never ending sky” is the precise moment when my heart shatters.

3. No More Shelter – Joan Shelley
Maybe the closest thing this world will ever come to a perfect hymn.

2. Should Have Known Better – Sufjan Stevens
It begins quiet and withdrawn, spare and beautiful, and then, on a perfect hinge, it transitions into something effusive, joyous, full of life and possibility. But in that leap, nothing from the previous half is lost, or forgotten. It all blends together, into an expression of pain, at a lost childhood, of love that went unsaid. And an expression of joy, at the way new families are formed. In the hope for the future. In the faith that, no matter how dark it is today, there’s always the possibility of sun tomorrow.

1. Realiti (demo) – Grimes
There might be some better songs out there in the universe somewhere, but there certainly weren’t any better songs this year. Even now, after roughly 7000 listens to this song (maybe an overstatement, but not by much), I remain utterly amazed. Her voice is ethereal, as always, as she bobs and weaves amidst a woozy dance beat that feels effortlessly constructed and yet pitch-perfect. Incredibly catchy without being the slightest bit overstated. Nothing about this could possibly be better.

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50 songs for 50 states: Louisiana

zulu mardi gras

Go to the Mardi Gras – Professor Longhair

Going into this project, Louisiana was one of the single most daunting states. How could I pick just one song from this great state, that is home to such a cornucopia of genres, which birthed jazz, which played home to Dixieland and Zydeco, where Afro rhythms blend with southern twang, where fiddles fight with trombones and the streets are filled with music?  It’s home to Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll. To Dr. John and Fats Domino. To Leadbelly and Jerry Lee Lewis and the Marsalis family and Tim McGraw and Lil Wayne. Heck, Jeff Mangum is from Ruston, while we’re at it.  And then there are the folks not from Louisiana with epic songs about the place. First on the list being Randy Newman’s haunting “Louisiana 1927.”

But in the end, my decision was actually pretty easy. It had to be about New Orleans. It needed to be an invitation to joyous celebration. And it needed to embody the whole crazy mess of inflections and influences that makes the city so unique.

It’s a song that sounds like a permanent second line, marching around the consciousness of New Orleans, calling on everyone to dance and sing out in joyous noise.

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