Hillary Clinton is winning because of the South – that’s a feature not a bug

‘Hillary Clinton is racking up delegates in states that will never vote for a Democrat in the general election.’ It’s a good talking point, and I understand the frustration from Sanders supporters who feel like their candidate is being written off based on the votes of a bunch of deep red states in the south. But I want to push back on the narrative here a little bit, and encourage those who care about democratic choice and liberal values to appreciate why this system is a good one.

One of the key things here: the Democratic primary (with all of its delegates being assigned proportionally) isn’t really about ‘states’ in any significant way. What state you live in determines when you get to vote, but broadly speaking (not 100% given caucuses and some small deviations in allocation rules, but broadly speaking) votes mostly count the same regardless of where you live.

And this is actually one of the best features of the primary system: that it allows all members of the Democratic Party to select their standard-bearer, regardless of where they live. The folks who live in the south, who have been voting in overwhelming numbers for Clinton, have been expressing their wishes for the future of the Democratic Party and for the person who might be president. And they aren’t just whistling in the wind; the system is actually responding to them.

That’s a good thing. And it’s good in precisely the sort of way that the Sanders campaign is good. His message is that we need to stand up for those who are disempowered, the people who are constrained by the institutions of their local political orders, who are denied real representative capacity by the circumstances that surround them. That their value as people with opinions and perspectives and wishes and desires should be respected and heeded. And that’s just as true for those who live in red states as it does for those who have been left behind economically.

The primary isn’t (and shouldn’t) be a purely tactical game about assembling a coalition of states. It should be about the people debating and considering with themselves: who do we want to represent us? That’s something that I hope most Sanders supporters would agree with.

I also want to slightly challenge one other aspect of this. While it is true, so far, that Clinton has picked up most of her delegate advantage in red states, she’s also won Virginia (a very purple state) by huge margins, and also won Nevada (purple), Iowa, Massachusetts, etc.

And all of this is partly a fluke of the calendar. Clinton is winning red states in the south because a ton of Democrats in those states aren’t white. It has little to do with how conservative they are (generally speaking, the Democratic electorate in the south is every bit as liberal as it is in blue states – which is different from the GOP, where Republicans in blue states really do tend to be quite a bit more liberal than those in red states). And there’s every reason to expect that the same demographic choices will produce more Clinton wins in big blue states like New York, California, etc.

In fact, we’ll get a good test of this in Michigan later today. If Sanders wins there, it will be worth revisiting this question. But for now, the key determining factor of the race is demographic, not geographic.

And I hope we can all agree that non-white voters are an important and valuable part of the Democratic coalition, whose opinions deserve every bit as much respect as anyone else, regardless of whether they’re surrounded by a sea of conservatives.

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For the sake of momentum


Momentum – Aimee Mann

Nate Silver has called momentum ‘the most overrated concept in elections analysis.’ Perhaps that’s a slight overbid, but only a slight one.

And yet, it’s so tempting!  Especially since there actually is some research to suggest that momentum is real and important, particularly in presidential primaries.  After all, the whole point of the drawn-out primary process is to allow small shifts in the early stages to guide and inform later events. You cull down the field through momentum effects, where a couple good results causes future undecideds to break in your direction. Or, perhaps more importantly, by encouraging tepid support for second and third tier candidates to melt away.

That said, I wanted to address the question of ‘momentum’ as it relates to Clinton and Sanders. My general bearishness on the Sanders candidacy has incited some pushback from Sanders supporters, with one key point being the trend of the election being in his favor.

The (perfectly fair) argument goes like this: Sanders remains behind by seven-ish points in the Pollster average, which is a big margin, but is a heck of a lot closer than it used to be (it’s worth noting that he’s down by a full 10 points in the 538 poll aggregate, which I think is slightly better than the strict Pollster one). And the trend is clear. Clinton is holding firm, but Sanders is gaining, steadily and emphatically.

Which all means that, to some extent, this is just a battle of expectations. Sanders needs a narrative of growing insurgency, which is building and ready to overwhelm the establishment. If his loss in Nevada is read as a genuine setback, it might risk quelling that spirit and becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So I absolutely get why Sanders supporters want to push back on the narrative of Clinton inevitability.

But from the perspective of an analyst, there’s a big problem with all this: we just haven’t seen any real evidence of voters leaving Clinton. Sanders hasn’t cut into her support in any real way; he’s simply acquired the excess capacity. Yes, there have been ups and downs for her, but her support is right around where it was back in September. It’s possible that Sanders-excitement has inspired new people to join the voting pool, but if that’s happening, then Clinton is picking up additional support to weigh against them.

So, for all that Sanders is doing amazingly well, nothing we’ve seen yet actually suggests that Clinton lacks the voting base necessary to win her the nomination. That is: Sanders’ momentum is currently about hoovering up the half of the electorate that isn’t yet settled on Clinton, and there’s a clear ceiling on that. Of course it’s possible that he’ll change things even more, and really tip the race on its side. But we just haven’t seen anything like that yet.

This particular kind of momentum, where a candidate who appeals more directly to the base gathers up all the disaffected folks who would be willing to settle for the mainstream candidate but aren’t quite ready to get there yet, is pretty well understood. You only have to look back four years to see a perfect example.

Look at this chart and tell me that Candidate B isn’t in great shape. Look at all the momentum!

romney santorum through FebExcept if we go just a couple weeks further down the road, reality sets in quite firmly, and we get this picture:

romney santorum full

This is, of course, Romney vs. Santorum. And it’s not hard to see that scenario playing out again.

Is the race completely over? Absolutely not. And it’s a testament to the Sanders campaign and his supporters that it still remains in doubt. But it’s nevertheless true that Clinton remains the prohibitive favorite. The betting markets have her around an 85% chance, and I’d buy at that price. Absent a major shock in the next few weeks, the outcome is pretty settled.

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50 songs for 50 states: Maryland

Maryland, Maryland, what are we to do with you?

There are plenty of non-terrible songs for the state. Lyle Lovett, Randy Newman, Stephen Malkmus, The Jayhawks, Gram Parsons…all have perfectly fine entries. But none of them sing to me. Dylan’s got his “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” which is important stuff, but…just doesn’t have much of a melody. And a weaker man might just go with “Hungry Heart” but ‘got a wife and kid in Baltimore, Jack’ just isn’t enough for me to hang my hat on here. And I guess I could just roll with The Mountain Goats again, since “Going to Maryland” is a perfectly nice little song.

But instead of any of those, I’m going to pick Tim Hardin. Because good god could Tim Hardin write himself a song, and I feel like people don’t pay him nearly enough attention. I like his original the best, but there’s some good covers by Joan Baez and Johnny Cash, if that’s more your speed.

Footnote: I learned something pretty exciting while I was researching: the very first song Tori Amos ever wrote was called Baltimore, and It. Is. Amazing. Seriously, go listen, and then marvel that the same person was later responsible for Little Earthquakes.

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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…


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


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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