Top 50 songs of 2013

I’ve been doing these lists for eight years and I’ve always included 40 songs. But there was just so much good music this year I couldn’t bear to cut it down that much. So I’m doing my top 50 songs of the year (and including a few honorable mentions for good measure). But the list could go another 50 songs and still include stuff that I genuinely loved. Seriously, what a great year of music.

As always, it’s limited to one song per artist. And I’m continuing my tradition of focusing on the single best moment of the song.

50. The Way We Touch – We Are Twin
3:31 – RIYL: Florence Welch. Or if you like the idea of soul-revivalism but wish someone would do it better.

49. Hidden XS – Fuck Buttons
8:00 – Eight minutes in, your body’s rhythms have finally calibrated to the song, and you’re gliding on a frictionless plane at a frightening speed.

48. Human – Daughter
0:05 – I liked but didn’t love the Daughter record, mostly because there were too many songs where the dourness was so overwhelming that it throttled the specificity of the pain. But this song keeps the two aspects perfectly balanced, thanks to this bone crunching drum kick.

47. Burn – Ellie Goulding
1:38 – This song is overproduced within an inch of it’s life, but it’s all kept afloat by Goulding’s voice. In these moments of buildup right before the chorus, she sounds like liquid gold.

46. City In My Head – Taxes
1:21 – There’s a little three-note burst on the guitar that drives the chorus – and it’s great throughout – but right here it is given just the tiniest bit of extra room to breathe. It’s like a shooting star, blink and you’ll miss it.

45. Echelon (It’s My Way) – Angel Haze
2:35 – Angel Haze has had a song on my list the last two years and still hasn’t even dropped her first album. Really looking forward to it coming out next year.

44. Someone Who Can – Yuna
0:14 – Just a perfect little pop song, but the thing that really elevates it is this delightful sample of Jon Brion’s “Phone Call” from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. While it fades back into the mix for most of the track, its constant presence is the thing that makes the whole thing tick.

43. Satellite Call – Sara Bareilles
2:17 – The introduction of those washed out guitars is what really brings this song to life.

42. Jolene (Kygo Edit) – Dolly Parton
3:48 – This remix takes that slinky guitar line and transforms it in beautiful dance beat, creating a far more expansive platform on which to rest Dolly’s wonderful voice.

41. Railroads – Holly Williams
0:50 – The grand-daughter (and daughter) of Hank Williams is charting her own path. Her efforts occasionally stray a bit too far into straightforward adult contemporary, but when it works, it works very well.

40. Hurricane (CHVRCHES Remix) – Ms Mr
1:12 – CHVRCHES turn this little pop gem from a dirge into an expression of triumph. I like the original but I adore the remix.

39. Side A (Old) – Danny Brown
0:39 – “Won’t live for anything, but might die for nothing” – On the first track of Old, Danny Brown gives a pretty harrowing picture of drugs, Detroit, and the way his rap career comes from those places. It sets the stage for a mature record – not mature because it insists on being serious (there’s still a lot of the playful ‘old’ Danny Brown on the album), but because it acknowledges the contradictions of wanting to stay real when the whole thing is ultimately a show.

38. Waiting For Something To Happen – Veronica Falls
0:14 – The moment when the sun crests over the horizon – and you know it’s going to be a wonderful day.

37. Only A Clown – Caitlin Rose
1:47 – The alchemy of the verse and chorus – I’m sure there are technical explanations for why it works the way that it does, but I don’t know what they are. All I know is that I’m glad to live in a world where it exists.

36. Chocolate – The 1975
1:09 – This song is stupidly, joyously, almost unbearably catchy. I’m not sure I OUGHT to like it, but I absolutely cannot get it out of my head. And you know what? More power to them. They found a hook and are going to ride it all the way to the promised land.

35. Central Park – Billy Woods
0:46 – The matter-of-fact delivery, and the implied metaphor of park and prison make for depressing subject matter. But it’s thrown into particularly sharp relief by the warm production and the loose beats. The result is something weirdly beautiful.

34. Nobody Gives a Damn About Songs Anymore – John Moreland
1:15 – The moment I knew that John Moreland’s record was going to bear many repeated listenings was when I heard the line “You said you’re gonna get rich if it takes all night” – such a perfectly economical and incredibly evocative line.

33. Dead Now – Frightened Rabbit
3:13 – State Hospital is my favorite song on the record, but since I already covered it on last year’s list, I’ll go with this exuberant track. It takes a while to really get going but this final minute is simply stunning.

32. Best of Friends – Palma Violets
2:43 – Sure, there’s nothing particularly new here. But who cares? It sounds great, and the world will never have enough shouted punk anthems. As long as there continue to be young guys armed with guitars, songs like this are worth listening to.

31. Who Needs You – The Orwells
0:00 – There are some songs that simply demand to be the opening track on a mixtape. This is just such a song. With that opening drum kick and ringing guitar riff, it promises the whole world – and the rest of the song delivers.

30. Labyrinthine – Juliana Barwick
4:02 – The long, slow exhale.

29. 1 Train (feat. Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson & Big K.R.I.T.) – A$AP Rocky
4:48 – There is such an embarrassment of riches on this track, with six guest verses from some of the best voices in rap these days. While Kendrick Lamar and Danny Brown’s verses offer a challenge, for my money the final verse from Big K.R.I.T. is the best. He spits out his words with such intensity that you can’t do anything but crown him the king just like he insists.

28. Dying All the Time – Helen
2:42 – The heaviness of the bass just kills me here – the whole song is an assault on the senses as only the very best shoegaze can provide. Helen is a side-side-project for Liz Harris, who is going to be making quite a few appearances on these lists.

27. Born At Five – Bombadil
0:43 – “For a while there everything was god damn peachy keen” – a whole life in a single song, and this is the moment I most want to hold onto.

26. What Death Leaves Behind – Los Campesinos!
3:05 – The most joyous chorus of the year. It just makes me smile.

25. Texas – Magic Man
1:40 – Nights sleeping on the roof, the sticky warmth of a summer night, that synth line, those thumping drums, a whole lot of sex.

24. Merry Go ‘Round – Kacey Musgraves
1:00 – It’s such a clever song, full of great wordplay and lines that develop out of one another. But by far my favorite line is the tragically simple “just like dust, we settle in this town.”

23. I – Perfect Pussy
0:10 – The amount of joyous noise here is simply unbelievable. I don’t ever want to cease to be amazed by the way it explodes.

22. Isjaki – Sigur Ros
3:33 – And the angel’s body was bared, and he was clothed in light so that eye could not look on him.

21. We Sink – CHVRCHES
1:50 – I’m not sure there’s any band in the world who has a better handle on writing the perfect pop song right now. I could just as easily have gone with “The Mother We Share” here. Or “Recover.” The point is: I could listen to CHVRCHES verse-chorus-verse the whole world into oblivion.

20. Requiem – Mimi Page
1:39 – Haunting

19. My Favorite Picture Of You – Guy Clark
1:29 – There are more love songs in this world than blades of grass, and yet I’m struggling to think of any which portray the romance of a lifetime with such depth. We always hear about falling in love, but who can tell us more about love than those who have lived within it for their entire lives? Clark sings with the perspective of time, giving us a window into his memories, and the deep well of love he shared with his now-departed wife, who has defined his entire life. It is about comfort, the weight of decades, the memories, both good and bad. And it makes me well up just to think about it.

18. 40 Acres (feat. The-Dream) – Pusha T
1:30 – Most people seemed to prefer “Numbers on the Boards” but for me this song is the essence of what’s great about Pusha T. It’s an incredibly sympathetic – totally honest – portrayal of an incredibly unsympathetic man.

17. Avant Gardener – Courtney Barnett
3:26 – “The paramedic thinks I’m clever cause I play guitar / I think she’s clever cause she stops people dying” – such a perfectly delivered line in such a stupendously weird song.

16. Blood Moon – RAUM
3:38 – A savage place! as holy and enchanted / As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted. The second Liz Harris project on the list.

15. Fighting Fish – Dessa
2:14 – If the first two verses set the stage, this final one delivers the knockout punch. She is so ready to jump back into the verse that it overruns the chorus. It reflects the urgency, the spirit, the fight.

14. Pretty Boy – Young Galaxy
1:48 – The syncopation of the synths, the sheer beauty of her voice, and the stately march of the drums.

13. Pink-Slips – Okkervil River
3:00 – When Will Sheff wants to set a song on fire, there is almost nothing in the world that can match it.

12. Sounds Like Somewhere – Lily & Madeleine
1:23 – The whole song is beautiful but oh my god these three seconds are almost more than I can bear.

11. Turn On the Summer – The Rutabega
11:03 – The heavens break apart and the guitar notes fall all around you, as if the sky itself were a huge pane of glass that has shattered and is now crashing to earth.

10. Living room – Grouper
1:18 – The third Liz Harris song on the list, and the most achingly sad.

9. Troublemaker – Camera Obscura
0:31 – So much to love about this song. The bridge is amazing – and the way it leads back into the fadeout is a wonderfully sustained interplay of harmonies and guitar. But ultimately I’m drawn back to this line, and Tracyanne Campbell’s glorious delivery.

8. San Francisco (Little Daylight Remix) – The Mowgli’s
0:45 – Despite living in the Bay, I fell in love with this song while I was in Chicago for a week. I rode the El around playing this song on endless repeat. The original is a very nice little bit of guitar rock; the remix is a piece of studio wizardry.

7. Song For Zula – Phosphorescent
3:08 – Drink in the allegories of love and death and pain and hope and rage and see what they mean for you. Stand with him out on that desert plain tonight, listen to the low synths, the soaring strings, the dusty voice. I don’t know what it will mean for you. But I am confident that you will not regret the experience.

6. New Lover – Josh Ritter
3:39 – So many delicious lines in this song. Virtually every verse has one or two impossibly clever phrases. It’s probably the most densely packed song of his yet, which is really saying something. But I ultimately just keep coming back to the end, where he admits that – for all that he’s moved on and wants her to be happy – “But if you’re sad and you are lonesome and you’ve got nobody true / I’d be lying if I said that didn’t make me happy too.” It works because it’s funny, and because it’s honest and true. We want to be our better selves, but can’t let that obscure the pain that remains.

5. Julian – Say Lou Lou
0:37 – The harmonies are just exquisite. It has that lush production that has characterized Swedish indie pop for the last decade, married to the atmospherics of classic Fleetwood Mac. It’s a heady combination – the sort of song you can listen to on repeat for hours. These sisters released a couple amazing singles this year – here’s hoping for a full-length in 2014.

4. Immunity – Jon Hopkins
3:58 – Love is the longing for the half of ourselves we have lost.

3. Graceless – The National
3:40 – Berninger’s distinctively smoky voice, the tightly wound guitar lines, and above all that insistent drumming. And when it all comes together, it is sheer perfection. The final minute or so might be my favorite musical moment of the year.

2. Elephant – Jason Isbell
1:53 – The most precise and devastatingly true thing that’s been sung in many many years.

1. Silent Treatment – The Joy Formidable
0:59 – In a year full of amazing music, this moment right defined my absolute favorite song. A pretty double-tracked female voice, backed by a delicate acoustic pluck, rising up and then falling around a single note…that’s what it takes to make my heart sing.

Honorable mentions:

- City Swan – Neko Case
The closest she’s come to making a solo New Pornographers song.

- I Run Empty – Tegan and Sara
I’m more of a Tegan fan, but this is one of Sara’s finest songs.

- Half Angel Half Light – The Men
RIYL: rock and/or roll

- Find Love – Prince of Spain
The opening half of the song is a nice bit of folk-pop. The second half is transcendent.

- Need U 100% (Dave Edwards Remix) – Duke Dumont
There’s really only about 45 seconds worth of song here, spread out of four minutes. But it’s just so damn catchy that I don’t mind hearing it over and over.

- What Are They Doing in Heaven Today? – Mogwai
A gospel hymn from Mogwai? Sounds good to me!

- R.I.P. – Prodigy and Alchemist
The best track on a very solid record. The Raekwon guest verse is the best, I think.

- Innocence – Electric Youth
RIYL: the Drive soundtrack

- Cocoon – ÁLI
Great synth pop.

- The Temptation Of St. Anthony – Alkaline Trio
Best song from them in a long time.

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We burn these joints in effigy and cry about what we used to be

Elephant - Jason Isbell
Live Oak - Jason Isbell

Honest, heart-wrenching, desolate, beautiful, bleak.  Hopeful. One of the most astonishing records you’ll ever hear.  Southeastern is the living document of a man coming face to face with his demons and triumphing.  But that triumph is only found at the very edges.  It’s hard-won, and even harder to sustain.

“In a room / by myself
Looks like I’m here with a guy that I judged worse than anyone else
So I pace / and I pray
And I repeat the mantra’s that might keep me clean for the day”
– Songs That She Sang in the Shower

The context is Isbell’s struggle to get sober.  But more broadly, it’s about the choice to become better in all sorts of ways.  Which really means it’s about two different people wrapped up into one: the man that you’ve been and the man that you want to be.  And you can’t help but wonder which one of them is the real you.  Am I nothing but the experiences of my past self aggregated together?  Do I own those memories or have they merely been lent to me by some more fundamental version of myself?

“There’s a man who walks beside me
He is who I used to be
And I wonder if she sees him and confuses him with me”
– Live Oak

And that’s the basic question of the record: is there anything left in this single moment? Is there any way to wrench my life away from the person who has brought me here? And if so, is it the real me who takes that act? Am I the one who wants to change, or the one who can’t manage to actually do it?  When I am sober, am I simply acting out a role – and my true self only emerges through the vehicle of substances that erode my inhibitions? Or am I only really me when I’m free from those influences?  If I do change things, will I like the person that I am going to become?

“She said Andy you crack me up
Seagrams in a coffee cup
Sharecropper eyes and her hair almost all gone
She was drunk, she made cancer jokes
Made up her own doctor’s notes
Surrounded by her family, I saw that she was dying alone”
– Elephant

Precisely because these questions are so inexorably personal and specific, Isbell mostly avoids trying to articulate them directly. He seems to realize that the only way to tell a true story about these questions is to do so obliquely. So we get characters, which serve important allegorical functions, but the connections are never overstressed.  These songs aren’t supposed to represent particular emotions, or particular struggles.  Instead, they reflect attitudes, values, fears.  They’re perspectives, which illuminate faces of a life that can never be grasped in its totality.

“Jesus loves a sinner but the highway loves a sin”
– Different Days

One relative constant is that all of these people are constantly on the move, on frontiers, at the margins of society.  While in some cases the reason for this movement is made clear (the singer of “Live Oak” is quite literally running from his own past), in many cases the plot details are left completely unfilled.  All we know is that standing still somehow means giving up.  Rather than filling in the plot details or etching a backstory, we zoom in close on specific details.  Some of the albums most powerful moments come from little fragments of conversations, the sorts of things that haunt your memory long after the details are lost.  The songs that she sang in the shower, a drink in a coffee cup, a view from an airplane window, the moment when a ‘goodbye’ long suppressed is finally said out loud.

“Once a wise man to the ways of the world
Now I’ve traded those lessons for faith in a girl”
– Stockholm

And finally, it all comes back to this: Southeastern is more than anything else an album about love.  It’s about the person who finally pushed him into action, the person who was finally worth doing it for.  The hardest part of getting help can often be accepting that you are not in control – that as much as your actions seem to be intentional and directed, somehow you’ve lost sight of your true self.  This is a terrifying proposition.  And it puts all of these songs about movement in a new light.  What they reveal is a man running from himself. Which makes it particularly powerful to realize that the most hopeful song on the record is built around the line:

“So girl leave your boots by the bed, we ain’t leaving this room
Til someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom.”
- Cover Me Up

Maybe, just maybe, getting better doesn’t have to mean running from who you once were.  Maybe it just means finding a way to stop running, at least for a little while.  If we’re lucky, we still can find ourselves – and share that self with someone who loves us.  And tomorrow, we have to try again.  And the next day.  And the next.

And here’s the terrible thing: we may not make it.  After all, the girl in “Elephant” is going to die.  And even more, as much as he wants to help, all of his kindness can’t give her death any more dignity. It’s simply an impenetrable wall. But the impossible weight of that fact doesn’t make it any less important to be there.  It’s not just a question of love; after all, her family loves her, but she is still dying alone.  What he can offer, maybe, is the kind of solace in the temporary loss of memory.  He gives her the chance to forget what she is now and remember who she really is.  Is that enough?  We may never know.  But we have to try anyways.

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To sleep: perchance to dream

Labyrinthine - Julianna Barwick

Many people make ambient music – where glacially slow movements are designed to hypnotize us, to give us a sense the deep structures of the world around us. And many other people make inspirational music – which uplifts, heartens and invigorates us. But I am not sure anyone in the world combines these two things with more care and astonishing skill than Julianna Barwick. She works with incredibly simple tools: short hymnal movements looped together with ethereal choirs, and the most delicate of instrumental interjections. But the result is simply entrancing. Imagine Sigur Ros performing a collection of Gregorian chants – produced by Stars of the Lid. Her music doesn’t just soothe, or provide a sense of peace; it reveals hidden gaps in our sense of the world, perturbations, anomalous movements. But it does this with such grace that we can resist the urge to elide their genuine difference and read them back into the world of the customary.

When Horatio says “And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest” to the dying Hamlet, I imagine that he means Nepenthe.

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She told me how to play the industry and keep my heart

Complacent ft. Problem - Rapsody

The comparisons to Lauryn Hill are so obvious that it’s impossible not to start there. Pick a couple tracks from She Got Game, release them as an EP of lost tracks from Miseducation, and I think most people would completely believe it. It has that same late 90s vibe of soul-infused beats, which provide plenty of room for her to stretch out and explore the space. Her flow is smooth, her words are intricate and sincere, and the pace is relaxed.

And Lauryn Hill is not simply a point of reference here.  The excellent “My Song” begins by explicitly acknowledging the comparison: “I ain’t the next Ms. Hill / I ain’t the next him or her, I’m just the one y’all feel.” It’s both a gentle chiding to those (like me) who leap to make this connection, but also a recognition of the honor that such associations convey. Later in the song she relays an imagined conversation, with Hill playing the role of the wise mentor.  There are no answers in the dream; just a hand on the shoulder and a kind word.  And these are broader themes of the whole collection: of growing into yourself, standing on your own feet, but also recognizing that we all come from somewhere and are profoundly shaped by the world around us. And that standing alone is necessary, but only because it gives us a certain sense of tranquility, and which lets us receive support and love without becoming lost. This is not the peace of leisure, or of satisfaction – there is still a lot of grit and pain and hard work on this record. It’s simply the peace of a woman who is keeping her balance in a world that has very little time for her.  This is all bolstered by a great cast of supporting guests, all of whom bring their A-game.

There was a ton of great rap this year, but this is my favorite record of the bunch. Best of all: you can get it for free.

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Feel the coolness of my gaze

Troublemaker - Camera Obscura

A wonderful return to form from a wonderful band.  I wasn’t in love with the more compressed sonic feeling of My Maudlin Career, so it’s truly delightful to hear this record mostly return to the looser, ambling easiness of Let’s Get Out of This Country.

Desire Lines is a truly comfortable record, which I know might come off as faint praise but I really don’t mean it that way. It’s soft, relaxed, and cozy – like your favorite hoodie that you throw on to keep you happy on a chilly day.  The sort of music you play on a warm summer morning to keep you company while you garden. It’s certainly not empty of content – there is a deep strain of melancholy that runs through the record – but it’s fundamentally an empathic work.  We have it in ourselves to be great, it says, but before we can try we must first be good.

For the most part, the record moves from fast-paced jangle-pop to slower tracks tinged with just a bit of doo-wop and soul.  Of the former, the clear highlight is “Troublemaker” which jingles and jangles its way right into your heart, and features that great Tracyanne Campbell voice.  It’s one of their best tracks to date, a genuine little pop masterpiece.  Other solid examples include “Do It Again” with just a hint of edge, and “Every Weekday” which has to be the warmest sounding track of the whole year.

Of the slower tracks, “This is Love (Feels Alright)” blends a measured and ever so slightly ornate pace with slight vocal swoops to fine effect, while “New Year’s Resolution” is delightfully wistful and “Desire Lines” builds off a nicely understated country vibe – with Campbell’s voice providing a lovely counterpoint to the slide guitar.

This isn’t a record that will blow you away, but it’s all the better for not trying to do so.  What you get is pretty simple: 13 great songs, no missteps, no wasted space.  Nothing but gorgeous music.

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The universe is a symphony of vibrating strings

Vital - Grouper

In a year full of wonderful ambient records, none were as astonishing as The Man Who Died in His Boat. It gives voice to the deep structures of the universe: its vastness, the empty reaches of space.  But also its material resonances: the living and breathing impossibility of life.  These songs are hazy windows into an alternate reality where humans never left the savannahs and the rest of the world continued on its own.  Her words are indistinct, unknowable, sinking below the surface even before they are sung. They ask you to listen for the spaces in between the seemingly whole.  The point is not to attack the false precision of modernity, but simply reflect it back upon itself.  In doing so we become aware of the endless waves of uncertainty and doubt that lie beneath them.

If this all sounds too abstract or distant, it is absolutely not. These are some of the most emotionally present songs you are ever likely to hear. They speak of loneliness and deep longing.  The hiss of the tape, the ethereality of a human voice, the blurrily plucked guitar notes, the background vibrations of atoms singing, all of these things live together here in a kind of discordant harmony so beautiful that I can’t ever hope to describe it.

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How much would you pay to be right?

Serious question: how many people are going to pay more for health insurance over the next few years because they are sure that Obamacare is bad and will therefore not even bother to look for better deals?

I ask this because I’m starting to see a lot more ACA success stories.  As the dominant narrative switches to stuff like this, it seems like a lot more people will be exploring the exchanges.

I see a number of possible ways this could go. Of the people who dislike the law:
1. Some will discover a better deal, and change their mind – at least partially.
2. Many more will get a better deal and grudgingly admit it, but still think that the law is on balance bad.
3. Some will get a worse deal.
4. Some will attribute all bad stuff to Obamacare (even if it was inevitably going to happen), and attribute all good changes to external factors – assuming that they are happening in spite of the law rather than because of it.
5. Some (I think) will just assume that it’s impossible that they could get a better deal so won’t even bother looking.  Or, even if they do look, will assume there is some hidden cost that makes it worse.

If category number 5 does exist, doesn’t it suggest that people are basically paying a premium to feel right?  If so, I think that’s interesting!  Alternatively, it could be understood as a form of solidarity: a baseline refusal to treat the law as just, which means it doesn’t even deserve your attention.  Regardless, I’d like to see some reporting about how such people think about the law.

And, related question, is there a counter-example of a Republican law that liberals so intensely disliked that they failed to take advantage of it because doing so might endanger their ideological presumptions? Tax breaks of some kind?

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The 10 best Christmas songs

10. Happy XMas (War is Over) – John and Yoko
Sure, it’s a little hokey, but who cares? It has endured where so many other ephemeral songs have faded in part because the message remains just as vibrant and necessary as ever, and in part because…well…John really knew how to write a tune that would last. It’s worth noting that it starts out with a rather pointed question: “And so this is Christmas, and what have you done?” It’s not just a platitude about the power of the imagination to end the war, it’s a call to action. I’m always skeptical of the simplistic way that people categorize John and Paul as songwriters, but I suppose it’s worth mentioning that John’s contribution to the Christmas canon as some real depth to it, while Paul’s…well, it’s probably best that we just don’t talk about “Wonderful Christmastime.”

9. Lo How A Rose E’er Blooming – Sufjan Stevens (traditional)
I grew up listening to a lot of the classic Christmas carols – a few of which make the list – but I have to admit I don’t ever remember hearing this one as a kid. Thankfully, I got a late introduction through those Sufjan Christmas EPs. He has two versions, both of which are absolutely magical.

8. Jesus Christ – Big Star
Maybe the finest song from the great Alex Chilton. This song was recorded in the pits of despair and I honestly have no idea whether it’s meant to convey hope for the possibility of redemption, or if it’s cutting mockery of precisely that dream. I like to believe in the optimistic take, but I suppose it’s part of the song’s beauty that we can’t ever really know.

7. The Christmas Song – The Raveonettes
6. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) – Darlene Love

There are so many great Christmas songs from Phil Spector, but Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) is absolutely the best. Oh my that voice, and oh my that wall of sound. Meanwhile, The Raveonettes are doing their best to provide a modern interpretation on the Spectorian dream, and do a mighty fine job with it.

5. The Christians and the Pagans – Dar Williams
A pagan niece comes to visit her Christian aunt and uncle for Christmas, awkward questions are asked, and people come to realize that beneath it all the only thing that matters is that they love each other. It’s pretty much the classic Christmas story.

4. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen – Super Deluxe (traditional)
The melody of this song is dark and almost eerie. It feels as though it were composed by some Arthurian minstrel in the dark night of a cold winter. I love how that feeling is necessary counterpoint to the central message: “tidings of comfort and joy.” Accordingly, this interpretation of the song as an alt-rock dirge only clarifies its underlying beauty. If you’d like something a little more traditional, try this wonderful pairing of Joshua Bell on piano and Alison Krauss singing:
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen - Joshua Bell and Alison Krauss

3. Christmas Unicorn – Sufjan Stevens (traditional?)
He has done so many wonderful Christmas songs that I couldn’t stick with just one. Where his take on ‘Lo How A Rose E’er Blooming’ was everything quiet and beautiful, this is everything glorious and majestic. It’s huge and crazy and weird and absurd. And, after about eight minutes, you suddenly realize that the synths that have started to take over the song are now providing the melody of “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” And you say to yourself: “Oh my god, of course it has always been a Christmas song. I just never knew it until right now.” It’s a piece of pure genius.

2. Oh Holy Night – traditional
Of all the classic Christmas carols, I believe this is the best. It has so many amazing lines and such a haunting, beautiful melody. The ‘fall on your knees’ line is just so overwhelming. Performers always run a risk doing versions of this song. It doesn’t lend itself to halfway measures; you’re looking for something fervent, not just something pretty. For two very different takes on that hurdle, try out these:
Oh Holy Night – Vanessa Peters

1. Fairytale Of New York – The Pogues
How could it be anything else?

It open with Shane MacGowan singing as no one else can: with a tenderness only matched by its raggedness. And then, even though you’ve heard it so many times before, you’re still completely unprepared for the way Kirsty MacColl’s voice emerges, triumphant, joyful, alive beyond words. As the verse unfolds and their voices intertwine you can almost see them, dancing together under the falling snow. It’s all there: the joy, the pain, the anger, the lost dreams, the hope, and the love. And on the final verse, when he sings “can’t make it all alone, I’ve built my dreams around you” there’s nothing left to do except weep for the sheer beauty of it all.

The tension in the song is, of course, whether to believe in the hope that they start out with, or whether to accept the pain of their conclusion. It would be a lie to pretend that you can simply wish away the bad stuff, but the sheer beauty of the song is the living proof that there must be something more.

What we hear in this song is the truest possible meaning of Christmas: a lament for the long winter, an expression of all the pain and suffering, the enduring human spirit.  It speaks to our need to share the darkness with those that we love and the hope that this will somehow renew it, and allow another year to be born in the ashes of the past. One brighter, nobler, happier, and more secure. The need to believe, to hope against hope. That tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms farther…And one fine morning…

Honorable mentions:
11. Christmas Wrapping – The Waitresses
12. Silent Night – traditional
13. All I Wanted Was a Skateboard – Super Deluxe
14. Little Drummer Boy – Bing Crosby and David Bowie
15. The Christmas Song – Nat King Cole

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There but for fortune, may go you or I

There But for Fortune - Phil Ochs

Ezra Klein comments on Obama’s claim that inequality is “the defining challenge of our time.”

Income inequality is easy to worry about. It offends our moral intuitions. Its tears into the fabric of the American dream.

But is inequality really the country’s most pressing problem? Imagine you were given a choice between reducing income inequality by 50 percent and reducing unemployment by 50 percent. Which would you choose?

He then goes on to argue that inequality is not the “central challenge to growth” in the economy. But that wasn’t the argument. The argument is that the degree of inequality in our society is a disaster.

I would be very happy to concede slower economic growth if that came attached to massive improvements in economic equality. I happen to believe that a more equal society wouldn’t necessarily restrict growth (and might well improve it), but even if it did, that’s a trade I would take every day of the week and twice on Sunday.

Perhaps it’s just my Rawlsian inclinations here, but it does not seem particularly radical to me to suggest that improving the condition of those at the bottom of the economic hierarchy is far more important than a system-wide goal of growth.

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Self-preservation is a full time occupation

Talk to Me Now - Ani DiFranco

John Dickerson posits that Congress could be improved if its members were forced to play a cooperative ‘escape room’ game, like the one he played earlier this week:

This week, I volunteered to be locked in a room with 10 other people to play an escape game. It was fascinating and great fun. In the United States Senate this week, they were also playing a locked room game. Senators were trapped in a spite-fest that kept them in rare marathon sessions, through the night. In our attempt to get out of the room, we cooperated, spoke only when necessary, and focused relentlessly on progress. In the Senate, they were doing the opposite. Perhaps they could learn something from our experience.

Okay, he’s obviously being a little facetious here, but the general point is still being made earnestly. And that goes as follows:

What if Democrats and Republicans were broken into little bipartisan teams and forced to play our game? The urgency of the task would force them to put away their speeches and focus on progress and accomplishments.

The problem here, of course, is that Democrats and Republicans both already want progress and accomplishments. That’s pretty much their sole motivation. The reason we have a problem is that they genuinely disagree with one another about what constitutes progress.

This dream that everything wrong with Washington could be solved if everyone just liked each other stems from a rather fundamental misunderstanding of effects and causes. Everyone hates each other because they want radically different things, and on any question of significant importance owe about 10,000% more to their party than they do to their colleagues. This means that there is very little value in cultivating good working relationships with the other party. Because those working relationships – the shared ability to ‘get things done’ rather than focus on securing your own objectives – is liable to get a Tea Party challenger rumbling against you in the primary.

If you want a more functional Congress you either need to make sure both houses are run by the same party (preferably with a president, too), or change our actual institutional structure. And, to be honest, even that might not get it done if that party is the current Republican Party. So your actual best bet for fixing things is to vote against the far right candidates and communicate to the ‘establishment’ Republicans that they might someday be allowed to function as a political party willing to trade goals in order to achieve positive sum results. Right now, the Republican Party is motivated almost exclusively by the overwhelming fear that anything the other party likes even a little bit is unacceptable. For them, that’s the definition of ‘progress.’ Until you can convince them that ‘progress’ means general improvements in the good for people across the spectrum of political opinion, well, no amount of hang-wringing about ‘people in Congress just can’t seem to get along’ is going to accomplish much.

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