Best Albums of 2020

And here we are in the nick of time, before the closing hours of 2020, to present you with the highly-subjective lists of our favourite albums of the year. We won’t pretend that 2020 wasn’t an especially horrible year for many people, but we can highlight that excellent artistry may arise despite tragedy (and it has been argued that the finest artistry emerges from tragedy necessarily). We would also like to take this opportunity to thank you for reading and to wish all of our readers a very happy New Year, full of love, peace and joy.

Elijah & Greg


10. Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Fiona Apple

Full disclosure: 2012’s The Idler Wheel… passed me by. In fact, I haven’t given Fiona Apple much of a listen since 2005’s Extraordinary Machine, which I found relatively underwhelming. I am grateful for venturing back into Apple territory for this record, which is the first of her five records (a slim catalogue over a 25-year career) in which she oversaw all of her own production. Without Jon Brion’s instrumental settings, Apple has produced something more primal. The title of the record comes from the television programme The Fall. In the scene in question, Gillian Anderson’s detective protagonist Stella Gibson is seeking to reach a torture victim through a locked door.

Without wanting to belabour the parallel, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is an expression of artistic liberation: ‘Fetch the bolt cutters… I’ve been in here too long’ (from the title track). Additional percussion is provided by the bashing of walls and floor of her Los Angeles home. These are accompanied by barking dogs (à la Brian Wilson), and, apparently, her deceased dog’s bones. Perhaps she is musing on her prodigal beginnings as a seventeen-year-old pop star when she sings ‘I grew up in the shoes they told me I could fill’. Whatever artistic journey she has been on, she has rediscovered a particular artistic freedom with this album.

9. Women in music Pt. III
HAIM

HAIM is comprised of the three Haim sisters: Este, Danielle and Alana. Women in Music Pt III is their third studio album and explores various personal challenges faced by the sisters as well as the sexism faced by women in the music industry (especially in the Joni Mitchell-esque ‘Man from the Magazine’). (A geeky side-note is the fact that the album cover was photographed by Paul Thomas Anderson [one of my favourite directors] at the famous Canter’s Deli in the Fairfax District of Los Angeles. Anderson also directed the several music videos from the album singles.) In addition to the deeply personal lyrical content of WIMPIII (each of the three Haim sisters have expressed personal traumas faced in the period leading up to the recording of the album), this record is notable for its employment of a wide variety of musical genres. Even with (though not necessarily in opposition to) the sometimes depressive content, WIMPIII is full of momentum, harnessing the energy of 1990s West Coast pop rock.

8. The Slow Rush
Tame Impala

When Greg first introduced me to Tame Impala over a decade ago, I was enamoured with the ‘band’s’ sound. Neo-psychedelic rock soundscapes with heavily-effected drums and vocals. There was something simultaneously classic and contemporary about the sound and I couldn’t get enough of it. When I discovered that the band was actually just Kevin Parker, my mind was well and truly blown. Since 2010’s InnerSpeaker, every Tame Impala record has scratched its way into my top ten lists.

When I first heard this record, I didn’t know whether The Slow Rush would buck the trend or not. It is both very Tame Impala and very much a departure. The psychedelic and effected elements remain, but The Slow Rush, in keeping with its name, features a distinctly softer sound than previous Tame Impala records while keeping time with punchy disco beats. In the opening track, Parker sings ‘Not caring if we do the same thing every week / of living like I’m only living for me / of never talking about where we’re gonna be / of living like the free spirit I wanna be.’ As an admitted superfan of the more distorted guitar-driven, gravelly Tame Impala sound, I remain entranced with the intimate interlude that is The Slow Rush.

7. Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
Perfume Genius

Michael Alden Hadreas, aka Perfume Genius has continued the trend of exploring embodied existence through song in his fifth album. Somewhat familiar narratives remain, but Set My Heart on Fire Immediately picks up on Hadreas’ decade-long musical journey from the art rock industrial ballads of his early releases, through the land of the flamboyant showman and to this amalgamation of a considerable number of musical styles and influences spanning the last sixty years of pop music. And while Hadreas persists in his exquisite lyrical poeticism, he also leaves the sonic soundscapes to complete the picture, to express the verbally inexpressible. The tone of the whole of Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is one of more confidence and earthiness (as opposed to the equally-valuable frailty and dreaminess of his previous releases).

6. songs / instrumentals
Adrianne Lenker

Since the release of Masterpiece in 2016, Big Thief has been one of my favourite bands of the last decade. This has been due primarily to the contribution of lead singer and guitarist Adrianne Lenker. In both songwriting and musicianship, Lenker has been a pleasure to explore. (Unbeknownst to me at the time, she has been writing and releasing music for the last 16 years.) Having released two excellent records last year (U.F.O.F. and Two Hands), Big Thief was set to embark on a European tour when, due to the pandemic, it was cancelled (boo…). As a result, Lenker saw an opportunity to take a break from the demands of recording and touring (as well as to work through a recent break-up), staying in a small cabin in Western Massachusetts to be near to her sister. It may come as no surprise that with a creative force such as Lenker, these circumstances proved ideal for the gestation of new material.

While Lenker’s previous material is known for its lyrical honesty, Songs in particular is a further journey into her feelings, borne, was The Independent’s Roisin O’Connor puts it, ‘with complete abandon.’ The opening track, ‘two reverse’ indicates this complete abandon: ‘Lay me down so to let you leave. / Tell me lies, I wanna see your eyes. / Is it a crime to say I still need you? / Crime, wanna feed you.’

In the midst of this vulnerable outpouring of emotion, Lenker continues to demonstrate her musical confidence, albeit stripped down to mostly her guitar and vocals (and the occasional sound of falling rain). This doesn’t feel like a Big Thief album, but perhaps something better, or at the very least, something more intimate.

5. græ
Moses Sumney

It is perhaps a testimony to my own musical ignorance (rather than the opposite) that I don’t often hear an album and feel as if it is unlike anything I have ever heard before. Even albums that may catch me off-guard tend to also harbour a strong relationship to my other musical interests. Without a doubt, Moses Sumney’s græ bears little resemblance to other music with which I am familiar. This is not to say that Sumney’s influences are unrecognisable, but instead that the composition of græ is a wholly unique expressive force. In addition to the experimental melding of genres including jazz, classical, folk, art pop/rock and spoken word, græ is also an exceptionally personal record. With confidence and skill, Sumney approaches various issues close to home including immigration (Sunmey was born in California to Ghanaian immigrants and spent a number of years in Ghana as a child), race, gender and queer culture. While these genres and concepts might appear ham-fisted or pretentious on any other record, the pacing and tone of græ facilitates natural expression and is a triumph of contemporary music.

4. RTJ4
Run the Jewels

I have been a fan of El-P since 2002’s Fantastic Damage. I even loved the electronic jazz fusion of High Water (recorded with The Blue Series Continuum in 2004). When he partnered with Killer Mike for 2013’s Run the Jewels, El-P went from strength to strength. Every subsequent RTJ record has continued to impress (albeit, peppered with humour on the level of Cartoon Network’s [adult swim] programming), but none so significantly as this latest release.

RTJ4 is the quintessential 2020 record. Pandemics, although horrific in their destruction of human life, come and go. Police brutality/racism is the more enduring illness in the United States. The opening track, ‘Yankee and the Brave (Ep. 4)’ heralds the tone of the record, closing with the words, ‘Yankee and The Brave are here / everybody hit the deck / we don’t mean no harm / but we truly mean all the disrespect.’ Run the Jewels have always exercised pointed social commentary, but RTJ4 is a step up in terms of agitation and clarity of thought. The lyrics express the reality of black Americans resisting systematic racism as well as the solidary in this struggle that can be expressed by allies of the black community. In a sense, Killer Mike and El-P are a shining example of what a unified, pragmatic and socially-conscious America can be, all bolstered by the superb production for which El-P has become legendary in the field of experimental hip-hop.

3. Hannah
Lomelda

Hannah is Lomelda’s fourth studio album (although ‘Lomelda’ is Texas songwriter Hannah Read, who has been releasing music for nearly a decade, in one form or another). Last year’s release, M for Empathy passed me by. Approaching Hannah with a tabula rasa was probably the best way in for me. As it turns out, whether by nature or design, Hannah Read is one of the most unassuming contemporary musicians I have encountered. There is a profound modesty in her songwriting, paralleled by the gentleness and unmilled tone of her singing voice. Hannah feels like a series of letters that Read has written to herself (as opposed to the convention of most self-titled records). It is almost as if Read is not interested in performing, per se, but rather, expressing herself in the most natural way possible – almost as if she is singing in the privacy of her bedroom. This openness disarms the listener and draws them in to Read’s narrative. She unveils grace and beauty in the mundane and ordinary, and through this, the listener is absorbed into that transcendence.

2. THE ASCENSION
Sufjan Stevens

I resisted. I promise that I resisted. When the album’s first single, ‘America’ was released in July, I had assumed it was a one-off, perhaps a comment on the state of play in the United States, what with the ongoing pandemic and the circus of a presidential election on the horizon. (In reality, Stevens penned ‘America’ during the Carrie & Lowell sessions.) Then August brought the second single, ‘Video Game’. As soon as it was released, I listened with measured anticipation. Was this to be the sound of The Ascension? I wondered, ‘Maybe this won’t be my cup of tea…’ ‘Video Game’ was followed by ‘Sugar’ in September and then the release of the album in full. I had placed a pre-order as soon as the album was announced, but I was beginning to think that its addition to my collection would be a matter of mere Sufjan Stevens ‘completism’, rather than a treasure to be cherished.

In part, I was relieved when I didn’t fall in love with The Ascension after hearing it for the first time. In the past, every time had Sufjan Stevens released an album of new material, it always seemed to climb its way to the top of my ‘best of’ list. To be sure, I am under no impression that my end of the year lists are anything more than subjective rambles about music that I—an ignoramus—enjoy. Yet, the more I listened, the more I realised that this was a true grower. Stevens has grown tired of folk music convention (he tends to dip in and out of love with this form) and songwriting in The Ascension exercises more force and certainty (even while expressing uncertainty) than ever before. In an interview with Spencer Kornhaber of The Atlantic, Stevens admits that this album is ‘bossy and bitchy’. In a sense, The Ascension is less dynamic than most of Stevens’ previous releases, but when that dynamism appears, it really pays off. The Purple Rain-era-Prince-sounding ‘Death Star’ stands out especially — I could not have guessed that jingle bells would give me the chills time and time again.

1. Rough and Rowdy Ways
Bob Dylan

Here are several potentially controversial statements: This is easily Dylan’s finest original work since 1997’s Time Out of Mind. This might well be his finest release since 1975’s Desire (or, when the notion takes me, 1989’s Oh Mercy). For all of the strengths of 2001’s “Love and Theft”, 2006’s Modern Times and 2012’s Tempest, Rough and Rowdy Ways showcases Dylan’s Nobel-prize winning, transcendent and perhaps, unparalleled songwriting prowess better than anything he has produced in the last two decades.

I find only two weaknesses in Rough and Rowdy Ways. The first is a single phrase in ‘I Contain Multitudes’. In the midst of throwing out seemingly-pithy pop-culture references intermixed with more profound figures among the ‘multitudes’ he ‘contains’, Dylan offers up this cringe-worthy line: ‘And them British bad boys, The Rolling Stones’. At 79, I can accept Dylan’s characterisation of the The Rolling Stones here—who were beginning to favour of edgier rock-n-roll cuts like ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ and ‘Paint It Black’ when Dylan was making his own transition to the electric guitar—but referring to them as ‘British bad boys’… I shudder even as I type the expression. My second grievance is with Dylan’s occasional dependence on cookie-cutter blues rock arrangements. Yet, even within the likes of ‘False Prophet’, ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’ and ‘Crossing the Rubicon’, his exceptional songwriting genius shines through. Thanks, Bob, for reminding me why you’re my favourite artist of all time.

Shore Fleet Foxes

Fountain Lyra Pramuk

Mystic Familiar Dan Deacon

Flower of Devotion Dehd

Microphones in 2020 The Microphones

Healing is a Miracle Julianna Barwick

SHall We Go on Sinning So That Grace May Increase? The Soft Pink Truth

Whole New Mess Angel Olsen

Fear of Death Tim Heidecker

Live Forever Bartees Strange


10. SURVIVORS EP
Tim Baker

I had originally slotted the new Car Seat Headrest album into this tenth slot, but then I realized that… I honestly REALLY only like about 3 songs on it. And so I came to the conclusion that I should instead honor this 5 song EP from my last year’s top album artist, Canadian troubadour Tim Baker. The song “Survivors” was MY ANTHEM for this year, so here’s to you Tim, for helping me to get through the lousiest year on record. You spin gold out of tragedy…

9. Born again
Ellis

Her voice is hard to distinguish from another dreamy bedroom pop singer named Clairo, but there’s something deeper in her deconversion narrative that keep this album from turning into another collection of broken heart stories. The lyrics aren’t too profound, but they’re honest, like a gauzy reflection on a #metoo world from the evangelical subculture with smashing cymbals and guitars on overdrive. I guess I’m just a sucker for a song that starts “Lately I have been romanticizing shit…” (“Embarrassing”).

8. Color Theory
Soccer Mommy

To be honest, a lot of the songs on this album sound the same to me… but the thing is, it’s such a great sound that she’s mastered. 90’s atmospheric rock with a girl-ish wistfulness (“I’m the princess of screwing up”) beneath which lies trenchant insights pulled from the wreckage of self-doubt, depression, loss, and splintered relationships. She’s like the prettiest, smartest, saddest, and angriest girl in the world at the same time, standing at the mic with a Fender Strat wrapped around her shoulders.

7. SLEEPYHEAD
Cavetown

For the first time ever, I have an album on my top ten that MY DAUGHTER Katrina turned me onto. This Gen Z wunderkind, whom his parents named Robin Skinner, wrote, produced, and played most of the instruments on the record in his major label debut and he is the most earnest of bedroom indie heroes imaginable, singing about how he hates the way he looks as an adult (“Snail”), wanting someone to tell him that they like him after he confesses his own affection (“Sweet Tooth”), and recounting how he almost killing himself at age 13 (“Empty Bed”). His double tracked vocals are charmingly lovely, he strums the acoustic minimally or grinds the electric Weezer-ly in just the right amount of accompaniment. It gives me hope for the future.

6. The Slow Rush
Tame Impala

This album had to grow on me. The dance-y vibe didn’t originally capture me as much as the sonic homages of Kevin Parker’s previous work (Beatles, 60’s psychedelic, 80’s pop, etc.), probably because I’ve never been a fan of songs that repeat a theme over and over, building and dropping out again and again. But, in the end, I had to give into the groove that this kid laid down. He’s a genius, this one.

5. Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was
Bright Eyes

This is a triumphant come back after 2011’s The People’s Key, which I found almost unlistenable. Conor Oberst may have been reinvigorated by his new muse (hint: see my #1 album) after creating the masterful collaboration Better Oblivion Community Center with her last year. His lyrics, songwriting, arrangements, and instrumentation are all back to the highest level of some of his best previous work with his long-time band. He touches on some deep wounds and finds cathartic creative power amidst the pain. Let’s hope that he stays this inspired for some time to come!

4. The New Abnormal
The Strokes

You know, I’ve never actually owned an album by The Strokes before. I mean, I knew and liked the songs that everyone did, but I would not have considered myself a fan. Perhaps I should have listened more closely. When I put this record on, I immediately connected with the catchy post-punk melodies and weary nostalgia that they were peddling. I even found myself cracking up at the melodic thievery (Psychedelic Furs in “Eternal Summer”), inside jokes (“Drums please, Fab” and “I was just bored, playing the guitar / Learned all your tricks, wasn’t too hard” in “Ode to the Mets”), and the bands coming to terms with being the old guard at this point in their career. This album brought me a lot of joy in this joyless crapheap of a year, so I thank them for that.

3. Shore
Fleet Foxes

This was the album that made me feel like everything would be okay again one day. Robin Peckhold et al were a bit obscure (though still brilliant) on 2017’s Crack-up, but it was like he was now inviting us to explore “land / Overgrown / No words, no false, no true / Water stands / Waves just pass through it / Like something moves through you.” That’s what listening to this album feels like… just the thing that I needed so much.

2. The Ascension
Sufjan Stevens

I had a listening party for this album on the night that it was released. For the first few songs, I was dialed in, willing to follow Suf wherever he wanted to take us. But then, beginning with “Die Happy” I became pretty… unhappy. Song after song began to revel in discordance, melodically and lyrically. I felt like it was a repudiation of the old Sufjan that I loved so much—his faith (“I want to be my own redeemer” and “I was acting like a believer when I was just angry and depressed”), his love of his country—though this somewhat understandable—in “America,” and his musical aesthetic (it was hard to make out any discernible natural instrument on the album—even Age of Adz allowed for the occasional acoustic guitar or orchestral part! It’s funny that the “America” B-side “My Rajneesh” was the EXACT Sufjan sound that I wanted!!). But then… I just decided to let Sufjan do what he needed to do, to say what he needed to say. And I once again recognized his genius and began to appreciate the album more and more. I may not love it as much as previous albums (I’d rank his oeuvre as follows: Illinois, Carrie & Lowell, Age of Adz, Michigan, The Ascension, Planetarium, A Sun Came, Seven Swans, Aporia, Enjoy Your Rabbit), but I will stand behind my artistic apotheosis whatever path he takes.

1. Punisher
Phoebe Bridgers

I’ve seen the Phoebe Bridgers backlash. It’s a real thing. And it’s not pretty. But to my ears, this is it. This is the best that this damnable year had to offer. She kept at it too, releasing the orchestral re-mix EP Copycat Killer and a melancholovely Christmas EP as well. I won’t say any more other than to say, “Take up and listen.” (PS. Katrina loves it too!! She dressed up as Phoebes for Halloween, which is meta, cause it’s one of the song titles on the album.)

folklore Taylor Swift (my beautiful youngest daughter is looking over my shoulder right now to make sure that I included this album on my list… heh heh)

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Another Decade of Bests (2010-2019)

This post is the second of two parts. With hindsight and in living with particular albums for longer, we have compiled lists of our ten favourite albums for each year from 2000-2019. Perhaps these lists will be of some interest for those who wish to walk down Memory Lane, or indeed, for those who might wonder if any of these [subjective] gems passed them by (as we have discovered from comparing our respective lists). Whatever you—dear reader—might glean from our produce, we are grateful for the opportunity to indulge in our list-making and music-listening passions here.

Elijah & Greg


— E —

  1. The Age of Adz / All Delighted People EP
    Sufjan Stevens
  2. The Winter of Mixed Drinks
    Frightened Rabbit
  3. Halcyon Digest
    Deerhunter
  4. The Suburbs
    Arcade Fire
  5. Teen Dream
    Beach House
  6. InnerSpeaker
    Tame Impala
  7. High Violet
    The National
  8. This is Happening
    LCD Soundsystem
  9. Clinging to a Scheme
    The Radio Dept.
  10. The Monitor
    Titus Andronicus

— G —

  1. The Age of Adz / All Delighted People EP
    Sufjan Stevens
  2. The Suburbs
    Arcade Fire
  3. The Winter of Mixed Drinks
    Frightened Rabbit
  4. InnerSpeaker
    Tame Impala
  5. Forget
    Twin Shadow
  6. The Reluctant Graveyard
    Jeremy Messersmith
  7. High Violet
    The National
  8. Contra
    Vampire Weekend
  9. Together
    The New Pornographers
  10. So Runs the World Away
    Josh Ritter

— E —

  1. The SMiLE Sessions
    The Beach Boys
  2. Belong
    The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
  3. Dye It Blonde
    Smith Westerns
  4. Strange Mercy
    St Vincent
  5. Bon Iver
    Bon Iver
  6. Let England Shake
    PJ Harvey
  7. Humor Risk
    Cass McCombs
  8. Helplessness Blues
    Fleet Foxes
  9. The Year of Hibernation
    Youth Lagoon
  10. Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
    M83

— G —

  1. The Last of the Country Gentlemen
    Josh T. Pearson
  2. Helplessness Blues
    Fleet Foxes
  3. 100 Acres of Sycamore
    Fionn Regan
  4. Rapproacher
    Class Actress
  5. Build a Rocket Boys!
    Elbow
  6. Strange Negotiations
    David Bazan
  7. Making Mirrors
    Gotye
  8. Endless Now
    Male Bonding
  9. The Family Tree: The Roots
    Radical Face
  10. 12 Desperate StrAight Lines
    Telekinesis

— E —

  1. Shields 
    Grizzly Bear
  2. Bloom 
    Beach House
  3. Dept. of Disappearance 
    Jason Lytle
  4. Lonerism 
    Tame Impala
  5. Silver & Gold
    Sufjan Stevens
  6. America 
    Dan Deacon
  7. ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
    Godspeed You! Black Emperor
  8. All We Love We Leave Behind 
    Converge
  9. Shrines 
    Purity Ring
  10. Sweet Heart Sweet Light 
    Spiritualized

— G —

  1. Fear Fun
    Father John Misty
  2. Silver & Gold
    Sufjan Stevens
  3. Break It Yourself
    Andrew Bird
  4. Tramp 
    Sharon Van Etten
  5. Port of Morrow 
    The Shins
  6. Adventures in Your Own Backyard 
    Patrick Watson
  7. The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Drive of the Screw… 
    Fiona Apple
  8. Lonerism 
    Tame Impala
  9. Through the Deep, Dark Valley 
    The Oh Hellos
  10. Who’s Feeling Young Now?
    Punch Brothers

— E —

  1. Pedestrian Verse
    Frightened Rabbit
  2. Reflektor 
    Arcade Fire
  3. Partygoing 
    Future Bible Heroes
  4. m b v
    My Bloody Valentine
  5. Big Wheel and Others 
    Cass McCombs
  6. Trouble Will Find Me 
    The National
  7. Wondrous Bughouse 
    Youth Lagoon
  8. Love’s Crushing Diamond 
    Mutual Benefit
  9. Monomania 
    Deerhunter
  10. Muchacho
    Phosphorescent

— G —

  1. Pedestrian Verse
    Frightened Rabbit
  2. Modern Vampires of the City
    Vampire Weekend
  3. Torres
    Torres
  4. The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You
    Neko Case
  5. Promises
    The Boxer Rebellion
  6. Trouble Will Find Me
    The National
  7. The Lives Inside the Lines in Your Hand / Threeep
    Matt Pond PA
  8. Alone Aboard the Ark
    The Leisure Society
  9. Us Alone
    Hayden
  10. Lily & Madeline / The Weight of the Globe EP
    Lily & Madeline

— E —

  1. pom pom
    Ariel Pink
  2. Burn Your Fire for No Witness
    Angel Olsen
  3. Nobody Wants to Be Here & Nobody Wants to Leave
    The Twilight Sad
  4. Lost in the Dream
    The War on Drugs
  5. St Vincent
    St Vincent
  6. Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son
    Damien Jurado
  7. Some Blue Morning
    Adrian Crowley
  8. Too Bright
    Perfume Genius
  9. Owl John
    Owl John
  10. Are We There
    Sharon Van Etten

— G —

  1. Heart Murmurs
    Jeremy Messersmith
  2. 1000 Forms of Fear
    Sia
  3. Second Sight
    Hey Rosetta!
  4. Brill Bruisers
    The New Pornographers
  5. Stay Gold
    First Aid Kit
  6. Upside Down Mountain
    Conor Oberst
  7. My Favourite Faded Fantasy
    Damien Rice
  8. Are We There
    Sharon Van Etten
  9. The Take Off and Landing of Everything
    Elbow
  10. In Conflict
    Owen Pallett

— E —

  1. Carrie & Lowell 
    Sufjan Stevens
  2. Currents 
    Tame Impala
  3. viet cong
    Viet Cong (Preoccupations)
  4. Depression Cherry 
    Beach House
  5. I Love You, Honeybear 
    Father John Misty
  6. Vulnicura 
    Björk
  7. Weirdo Shrine 
    La Luz
  8. Fading Frontier 
    Deerhunter
  9. White Men Are Black Men Too
    Young Fathers
  10. Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
    Courtney Barnett

— G —

  1. Carrie & Lowell
    Sufjan Stevens
  2. Currents
    Tame Impala
  3. Teens of Style
    Car Seat Headrest
  4. Vulnicura
    Björk
  5. Bashed Out
    This is the Kit
  6. Dear Wormwood
    The Oh Hellos
  7. Depression Cherry
    Beach House
  8. Brother
    The Brilliance
  9. Sprinter
    Torres
  10. Times Infinity Vol. One
    The Dears

— E —

  1. Masterpiece 
    Big Thief
  2. My Woman 
    Angel Olsen
  3. Teens of Denial 
    Car Seat Headrest
  4. Painting of a Panic Attack 
    Frightened Rabbit
  5. Puberty 2 
    Mitski
  6. A Moon Shaped Pool 
    Radiohead
  7. Skeleton Tree 
    Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
  8. You Want it Darker 
    Leonard Cohen
  9. Emotions and Math
    Margaret Glaspy
  10. Next Thing 
    Frankie Cosmos

— G —

  1. Teens of Denial
    Car Seat Headrest
  2. Are You Serious
    Andrew Bird
  3. Painting of a Panic Attack
    Frightened Rabbit
  4. Puberty 2
    Mitski
  5. The Birds Outside Sang
    Florist
  6. A Moon Shaped Pool
    Radiohead
  7. Arranging Time
    Pete Yorn
  8. Remember Us to Life
    Regina Spektor
  9. Front Row Seat to Earth
    Weyes Blood
  10. 22, A Million
    Bon Iver

— E —

  1. A Crow Looked at Me
    Mount Eerie
  2. DAMN
    Kendrick Lamar
  3. Capacity
    Big Thief
  4. Planetarium
    Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner & James McAlister
  5. No Shape
    Perfume Genius
  6. Slowdive
    Slowdive
  7. Last Place
    Grandaddy
  8. Sleep Well Beast
    The National
  9. Powerplant
    Girlpool
  10. Antisocialites
    Alvvays

— G —

  1. (I Am) Origami Pt. 2 – Every Power Wide Awake
    John Van Deusen
  2. Stranger in the Alps
    Phoebe Bridgers
  3. Pure Comedy
    Father John Misty
  4. Planetarium
    Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner & James McAlister
  5. Crack-Up
    Fleet Foxes
  6. Swin Inside the Moon
    Angelo De Augustine
  7. Sleep Well Beast
    The National
  8. Ruins
    First Aid Kit
  9. Mentall Illness
    Aimee Mann
  10. Painted Ruins
    Grizzly Bear

— E —

  1. 7
    Beach House
  2. Be the Cowboy
    Mitski
  3. And Nothing Hurt
    Spiritualized
  4. Only Love
    The Armed
  5. God’s Favorite Customer
    Father John Misty
  6. You Won’t Get What You Want
    Daughters
  7. Lush
    Snail Mail
  8. In a Poem Unlimited
    US Girls
  9. Singularity
    Jon Hopkins
  10. The Future Me Hates Me
    The Beths

— G —

  1. Be the Cowboy
    Mitski
  2. God’s Favorite Customer
    Father John Misty
  3. Something in the Rain (OST)
    이남연 & Rachel Yamagata
  4. Lush
    Snail Mail
  5. Boygenius
    Boygenius
  6. 7
    Beach House
  7. Big Red Machine
    Big Red Machine
  8. Love is Dead
    Chvrches
  9. You, Forever
    Sam Evian
  10. Hell-On
    Neko Case

— E —

  1. It Won/t Be Like This All the Time
    The Twilight Sad
  2. All Mirrors
    Angel Olsen
  3. U.F.O.F.
    Big Thief
  4. Remind Me Tomorrow
    Sharon Van Etten
  5. Reward
    Cate Le Bon
  6. Titanic Rising
    Weyes Blood
  7. Ghosteen
    Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
  8. Anima
    Thom Yorke
  9. 2020
    Richard Dawson
  10. Two Hands
    Big Thief

— G —

  1. Forever Overhead
    Tim Baker
  2. Cala
    Fionn Regan
  3. Better Oblivion Community Center
    Better Oblivion Community Center
  4. My Finest Work Yet
    Andrew Bird
  5. Titanic Rising
    Weyes Blood
  6. Tomb
    Angelo De Augustine
  7. Father of the Bride
    Vampire Weekend
  8. Remind Me Tomorrow
    Sharon Van Etten
  9. Anima
    Thom Yorke
  10. Immunity
    Clairo

See our lists from 2000-2009 here.






A Decade of Bests (2000-2009)

When we first launched Lost in the Cloud in 2010, we were on a roll from our previous blog, hoping to take LITC into different territory. One thing we carried over from our previous blog was our love for lists, especially music lists. We began Lost in the Cloud with productive intentions, but life, as it can so often do, got in the way of our keeping up with the blog.

For the first six years, we were diligent in posting the lists of our favourite albums of the year, complete with short descriptions of each. In those last couple of dwindling years, our ‘Best Albums’ lists were becoming the only new material we were producing for the blog. In time, even that dropped off of our list of priorities and Lost in the Cloud went quiet.

This year, we have decided to revisit our ‘Best Albums’ lists and to even elaborate on our whole ‘Best Albums’ corpus by travelling all the way back to the prehistoric year that was 2000. This post is part one of two. With hindsight and in living with particular albums for longer, we have compiled lists of our ten favourite albums for each year from 2000-2019. Perhaps these lists will be of some interest for those who wish to walk down Memory Lane, or indeed, for those who might wonder if any of these [subjective] gems passed them by (as we have discovered from comparing our respective lists). Whatever you—dear reader—might glean from our produce, we are grateful for the opportunity to indulge in our list-making and music-listening passions here.

Elijah & Greg


— E —

  1. Figure 8
    Elliott Smith
  2. Kid A
    Radiohead
  3. The Sophtware Slump
    Grandaddy
  4. Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven
    Godspeed You! Black Emperor
  5. ÁGÆTIS BYRJUN
    Sigur Rós
  6. Bachelor No. 2
    Aimee Mann
  7. Winners Never Quit
    Pedro the Lion
  8. Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea
    PJ Harvey
  9. And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out
    Yo La Tengo
  10. Rising Tide
    Sunny Day Real Estate

— G —

  1. Kid A
    Radiohead
  2. Figure 8
    Elliott Smith
  3. Bachelor No. 2
    Aimee Mann
  4. All That You Can’t Leave Behind
    U2
  5. ÁGÆTIS BYRJUN
    Sigur Rós
  6. Fever & Mirrors
    Bright Eyes
  7. Heartbreaker
    Ryan Adams
  8. Rising Tide
    Sunny Day Real Estate
  9. Winners Never Quit
    Pedro the Lion
  10. MASS ROMANTIC
    The New Pornographers

— E —

  1. Amnesiac
    Radiohead
  2. Jane Doe
    Converge
  3. The Glow, Pt. 2
    The Microphones
  4. White Blood Cells
    The White Stripes
  5. Blue Screen Life
    Pinback
  6. Hot Shots II
    The Beta Band
  7. Vespertine
    Björk
  8. “Love and Theft”
    Bob Dylan
  9. The Photo Album
    Death Cab for Cutie
  10. Discovery
    Daft Punk

— G —

  1. The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads
    Lift to Experience
  2. Oh, Inverted World
    The Shins
  3. Asleep in the back
    Elbow
  4. Musicforthemorningafter
    Pete Yorn
  5. Origin of Symmetry
    Muse
  6. The Invisible Band
    Travis
  7. The Only Reason I Feel Secure
    Pedro the Lion
  8. Skyscraper National Park
    Hayden
  9. The Photo Album
    Death Cab for Cutie
  10. AMNESIAC
    Radiohead

— E —

  1. Control 
    Pedro the Lion
  2. Turn on the Bright Lights 
    Interpol
  3. Fantastic Damage 
    El-P
  4. Alice / Blood Money
    Tom Waits
  5. The Creek Drank the Cradle
    Iron & Wine
  6. Sea Change
    Beck
  7. Unfortunately We’re Not Robots
    Curl Up & Die
  8. [AB] Life
    mewithoutYou
  9. We Are the Only Friends We Have
    Piebald
  10. Give Up
    Postal Service

— G —

  1. Control
    Pedro the Lion
  2. Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground
    Bright Eyes
  3. The Creek Drank the Cradle
    Iron & Wine
  4. Sea Change
    Beck
  5. The Last Broadcast 
    Doves
  6. Give Up 
    Postal Service
  7. A Rush of Blood to the Head 
    Coldplay
  8. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
    Wilco
  9. Turn on the Bright Lights 
    Interpol
  10. The Seamonsters
    The Seamonsters

— E —

  1. Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lakes State 
    Sufjan Stevens
  2. The Ugly Organ 
    Cursive
  3. Hail to the Thief 
    Radiohead
  4. The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place 
    Explosions in the Sky
  5. Sumday
    Grandaddy
  6. You Forgot it in People 
    Broken Social Scene
  7. Dear Catastrophe Waitress 
    Belle & Sebastian
  8. Monday at the Hug & Pint 
    Arab Strap
  9. Frail Words Collapse 
    As I Lay Dying
  10. Happy Songs for Happy People
    Mogwai

— G —

  1. Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lakes State 
    Sufjan Stevens
  2. Hail to the Thief
    Radiohead
  3. Cast of Thousands
    Elbow
  4. Absolution
    Muse
  5. Final Straw
    Snow Patrol
  6. Marvelous Things EP
    Eisley
  7. O
    Damien Rice
  8. Transatlanticism
    Death Cab for Cutie
  9. Log 22
    Bettie Serveert
  10. Desprate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes
    TV on the Radio

— E —

  1. From a Basement on a Hill
    Elliott Smith
  2. Funeral
    Arcade Fire
  3. Seven Swans
    Sufjan Stevens
  4. Antics
    Interpol
  5. You Are the Quarry
    Morrissey
  6. Sung Tongs
    Animal Collective
  7. Achilles Heel
    Pedro the Lion
  8. Our Endless Numbered Days
    Iron & Wine
  9. A
    Cass McCombs
  10. How It Ends
    DeVotchKa

— G —

  1. Sung Tongs
    Animal Collective
  2. From a Basement on a Hill
    Elliott Smith
  3. Antics
    Interpol
  4. Seven Swans
    Sufjan Stevens
  5. Achilles Heel
    Pedro the Lion
  6. Our Endless Numbered Days
    Iron & Wine
  7. FUNERAL
    Arcade Fire
  8. The Autumns
    The Autumns
  9. How It Ends
    DeVotchKa
  10. Turning Tide
    The Seamonsters

— E —

  1. Illinois 
    Sufjan Stevens
  2. The One Above All, The End of All That Is 
    Curl Up & Die
  3. Emoh 
    Lou Barlow
  4. Takk...
    Sigur Rós
  5. Feels 
    Animal Collective
  6. LCD Soundsystem 
    LCD Soundsystem
  7. Headphones 
    Headphones
  8. And the Glass Handed Kites 
    Mew
  9. Guero 
    Beck
  10. Surf
    Roddy Frame

— G —

  1. Illinois
    Sufjan Stevens
  2. Takk...
    Sigur Rós
  3. Several Arrows Later
    Matt Pond PA
  4. Silent Alarm
    Bloc Party
  5. Feels
    Animal Collective
  6. Emoh
    Lou Barlow
  7. Andrew Bird & the Mysterious Production of Eggs
    Andrew Bird
  8. I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning
    Bright Eyes
  9. Headphones
    Headphones
  10. Pixel Revolt
    John Vanderslice

— E —

  1. Yellow House 
    Grizzly Bear
  2. The Avalanche 
    Sufjan Stevens
  3. Happy Hollow
    Cursive
  4. No Heroes 
    Converge
  5. Everything All the Time 
    Band of Horses
  6. Victory for the Comic Muse 
    The Divine Comedy
  7. Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards 
    Tom Waits
  8. Sing the Greys 
    Frightened Rabbit
  9. Brother, Sister
    mewithoutYou
  10. The Eraser 
    Thom Yorke

— G —

  1. The Avalanche
    Sufjan Stevens
  2. Gang of Losers
    The Dears
  3. The End of History
    Fionn Regan
  4. The Eraser
    Thom Yorke
  5. Begin to Hope
    Regina Spektor
  6. Everything All the Time
    Band of Horses
  7. Sing the Greys
    Frightened Rabbit
  8. The Cost
    The Frames
  9. Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
    Neko Case
  10. Camping by the Railroad Tracks in December
    Harmony and Pollution

— E —

  1. Neon Bible
    Arcade Fire
  2. In Rainbows
    Radiohead
  3. Sound of Silver
    LCD Soundsystem
  4. Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters
    The Twilight Sad
  5. Strawberry Jam
    Animal Collective
  6. White Chalk
    PJ Harvey
  7. Cease to Begin
    Band of Horses
  8. Dance Tonight! Revolution Tomorrow!
    Orchid
  9. The Shepherd’s Dog
    Iron & Wine
  10. Person pitch
    Panda Bear

— G —

  1. In Rainbows
    Radiohead
  2. Strawberry Jam
    Animal Collective
  3. Boxer
    The National
  4. A Few More Published Studies
    The XYZ Affair
  5. Wincing the Night Away
    The Shins
  6. PERSON PITCH
    Panda Bear
  7. Cease to Begin
    Band of Horses
  8. A WEEKEND IN THE CITY
    Bloc Party
  9. Voxtrot
    Voxtrot
  10. Neon Bible
    Arcade Fire

— E —

  1. The Midnight Organ Fight
    Frightened Rabbit
  2. Songs in A&E
    Spiritualized
  3. Fleet Foxes
    Fleet Foxes
  4. In Ear Park
    Department of Eagles
  5. Dig That Treasure
    Cryptacize
  6. Dropping the Writ
    Cass McCombs
  7. Microcastle
    Deerhunter
  8. Everything That Happens Will Happen Today
    David Byrne & Brian Eno
  9. In Ghost Colours
    Cut Copy
  10. Rip It Off
    Times New Viking

— G —

  1. The Midnight Organ Fight
    Frightened Rabbit
  2. Fleet Foxes
    Fleet Foxes
  3. The Seldom Seen Kid
    Elbow
  4. Vampire Weekend
    Vampire Weekend
  5. Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust
    Sigur Rós
  6. Dropping the Writ
    Cass McCombs
  7. Words & Music
    Aqualung
  8. In Ear Park
    Department of Eagles
  9. At War with Walls & Mazes
    Son Lux
  10. @#%&*! Smilers
    Aimee Mann

— E —

  1. Veckatimest
    Grizzly Bear
  2. Merriweather Post Pavilion
    Animal Collective
  3. Axe to Fall
    Converge
  4. Album
    Girls
  5. Forget the Night Ahead
    The Twilight Sad
  6. Logos
    Atlas Sound
  7. These Four Walls
    We Were Promised Jetpacks
  8. Mythomania
    Cryptacize
  9. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
    The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
  10. Curse Your Branches
    David Bazan

— G —

  1. Merriweather Post Pavilion
    Animal Collective
  2. Middle Cyclone
    Neko Case
  3. Curse Your Branches
    David Bazan
  4. Veckatimest
    Grizzly Bear
  5. Far
    Regina Spektor
  6. Romanian Names
    John Vanderslice
  7. Oh My God, Charlie Darwin
    The Low Anthem
  8. Hospice
    The Antlers
  9. Manners
    Passion Pit
  10. Goodnight Unknown
    Lou Barlow

See our lists from 2010-2019 here.

Jesus wept

On Monday evening, at Donald Trump’s final campaign rally before the election, Donald Trump, Jr declared, ‘Let’s make liberals cry again!’ Of course, this is a play on the worn-out ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan, but with an added twist!

The narrative peddled by Donald Trump and company is that the United States is an inherently conservative nation and the so-called ‘liberals’ are pedantic outliers and sore losers, and that these people actually hate America. In reality, it can be argued that the United States is a ‘liberal’ nation. Do you find that difficult to believe? Here are some figures:

Perhaps one might believe that these polls cannot be trusted. Granted, polls like these always have margins of error, but it cannot be denied that a large swathe of the American population supports policies that are associated with liberal ideals. This 2020 election is a very tangible demonstration of the fact that the United States is not wholly one position or the other with regard to the narrow spectrum represented by ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ labels in the country. This matters because, in expressing a desire for liberals to ‘cry again’, Donald Trump, Jr is making clear that the Trump campaign is not in the business of uniting the United States. This isn’t news — Donald Trump’s disparaging views regarding anyone who disagrees with him are well-established.

Donald Trump paints himself as the voice of ‘true America’. He speaks of how good he has been for women and people of colour, but the poll numbers seem quite clear and these demographics have expressed their verdict. By and large, women and people of colour do not believe that another Donald Trump presidential term would benefit their interests. A side note – if you feel the need to retweet when the odd woman or person of colour expresses their admiration for you, you might be a sexist and a racist.

With regard to the desire to ‘make liberals cry again’—beyond it being but one example of serial juvenile bullying from the Trump camp—I feel the need to express that this is not a Christian view. (I relate this to faith since Donald Trump, Jr has expressed that liberals hate Church.) From a more neutral perspective, perhaps it is possible to say that there is no virtue in wishing for (or taking pleasure in) the sorrow or misfortune of others.

This morning, I spent some time reflecting on the story of someone crying, namely (as this blog post’s title suggests), Jesus of Nazareth.

In the Fourth Gospel, the Gospel of John, Jesus is walking around Palestine, upsetting the powerful and empowering the poor — you know, as he does. At the beginning of the 11th chapter, Jesus and his disciples are out in the wilderness, east of the River Jordan, where his cousin John had been baptising people. While he is there, he receives a notification from some of his friends, the sisters Mary and Martha. They inform him that their brother, Lazarus, is very unwell. They do this in a very intimate way, writing, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ Mary and Martha assume that Jesus, who had demonstrated this specific power at other times (especially in 9.1-12), is able to make Lazarus well again, but for them, time is of the essence.

Perhaps unusually, Jesus does not rush to their aid. He states, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ (11.4). The Gospel continues: ‘Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.’ (11.5-6).

To provide a little geographical context, Jesus is probably in a place called Bethany (‘Bethany Beyond the Jordan’, 1.21; modern-day Al-Maghtas, Jordan). Mary, Martha and Lazarus are in another Bethany (modern-day Al-Eizariya, Palestine) just outside of Jerusalem. As the crow flies, the two are about 60 kilometres (approximately 38 miles), or a day’s journey from each other. Therefore, when Jesus and his disciples finally reach Mary and Martha, it is likely that four days had elapsed since the sisters’ message was sent.

When he reaches Bethany, he is first approached by Martha who expresses, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ (11.21-22). Here, Martha is demonstrating an immense amount of faith, believing that this man somehow possesses the ability to heal people.

Some might discredit this sort of belief in ancient times because it is assumed that people back then were somehow more superstitious or gullible. But just as this sort of healing is not something that happens in our present experience (speaking generally – I have my beliefs, but I cannot discredit others’ experiences), in the same way, it was not something that happened in their ancient experience.

Martha entertains the possibility of some other demonstration of Jesus’ power, but doesn’t seem to be able to put the specific words together: ‘Jesus, I know you can raise him from the dead.’ Maybe she wanted to say that. She was in a desperate situation and in desperation people can be open to a whole range of possibilities that would have otherwise been impossibilities. In her grief, maybe she just can’t accept that this ‘avoidable’ death is here to stay.

Up to this point in the narrative, Jesus is demonstrating a degree of nonchalance that makes others uncomfortable. He speaks of God’s glory and God’s power to do the extraordinary, but those around him seem more concerned with immediate action. When Mary finally catches up with him, she falls at his feet and says, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ (11.32). Whatever modicum of faith that Martha had expressed in the open-ended suggestion that God will give Jesus whatever he asks, Mary’s devastation stops her faith at the former statement: ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ Mary shows a large degree of faith, but that faith is somehow incomplete.

Mary breaks down in tears and is surrounded by a company of mourners, all weeping. The Gospel states, ‘When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.’ (11.33) He is then shown Lazarus’ tomb and begins to weep (11.35). This verse (translated historically as the supposed shortest verse in the Bible, ‘Jesus wept’), has been interpreted by many as a demonstration of Jesus’ compassion, empathy and grief. Indeed, the mourners with Mary seem to share this understanding when they look at Jesus and say, ‘See how he loved [Lazarus]!’ (11.36).

I am not suggesting that Jesus is lacking in compassion, empathy or grief, but I believe that the cause of his particular grief in this episode is not over the death of Lazarus. Jesus does love Lazarus, but all throughout the chapter he has demonstrated no urgency. He is not concerned about reaching Lazarus before his death. When he is approached by Martha, he explains calmly that this is not the end for Lazarus.

Why would Jesus then cry for the man he knew he was going to raise from the dead in a matter of moments? My argument is that he would not. Instead, it is his observation of Mary’s response that causes him to break down. The oddity of interpreting Jesus’ weeping as grief for Lazarus is highlighted in the very text. Among the mourners, some are inconsolable, while others see Jesus weeping and question, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’ (11.37). These individuals are perplexed at the incongruity between Jesus’ power and his perceived powerlessness.

If Jesus was not weeping for Lazarus, why then was he weeping? At the very least, I believe the text demonstrates that he was weeping because these people believed that while he was able to heal a blind man (9.1-12) and while he might have been able to keep Lazarus from dying, Lazarus’ death was, for all intents and purposes, game over. Jesus was aware of what was about to transpire. While he was still at Bethany Beyond the Jordan, he said to his disciples, ‘For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.’ (11.15). Even his disciples did not yet believe he was able to do anything about Lazarus’ death. This is evidenced by Thomas’ follow-up, demonstrating an understanding that a return to Judea would bring about their own deaths at the hands of the authorities (11.16).

When looking at the whole of the Fourth Gospel, one can find a wide range of things that would disturb Jesus more than this incident in Bethany. For example, he would have known that Thomas was right, to some extent: a move toward Jerusalem would be a move closer to his death at the hands of the authorities. In the section immediately following the raising of Lazarus, some observers see this impossible act and report to the religious leaders, who continue in their plot to have Jesus killed. Therefore, it is possible to see that Jesus was also grieving for the challenges ahead. If his followers did not entertain the possibility that he could raise Lazarus from the dead, what hope would they have when it came to Jesus’ own death? I believe that this is why Jesus wept.

Throughout my reflection on John 11, I have thought about the words of Donald Trump, Jr. ‘Let’s make liberals cry again!’ While the Trump campaign might assume that liberals will cry because of the overwhelming victory for conservative America, ‘true America’, I posit two alternative reasons.

I wouldn’t like to call myself a ‘liberal’, though I can see how a lazy assessment and pigeon-holing of my beliefs might lead some to the conclusion that I am a liberal. (Others might feel the need to place me in the ‘conservative’ camp due to my beliefs in a divine being and in the literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus.) But whoever wins this election, I may weep.

In case you weren’t sure, I shall now put my ‘cards on the table’.

If this presidential election goes to Joe Biden, I may weep with joy because of the end of a sustained assault on the basic humanity of the country of my birth perpetrated by an individual and the poisonous social climate he has helped to propagate. I may weep with joy because I will be able to wake up in the morning and not worry about the onslaught of misinformation and abuse tweeted by the Commander-in-Chief and analysed by seemingly every news source in the world. Don’t get me wrong — a President Biden would have every opportunity to disappoint and deceive. The difference is that I believe that Joe Biden represents a very different, far more dignified, diplomatic and fair ideology, one in which the cry of the oppressed will have more opportunities to be heard in the halls of power. For these reasons and many more, I may weep with joy.

If this election goes to Donald Trump, I may weep for very different reasons.

Last night, while I was languishing in election results at 04.00 GMT, I was following alongside one of my brothers who lives in California. I had told myself that I wouldn’t stay up: ‘There’s no point. We won’t know the results for a week.’ But with so much riding on this presidential election, I gave in.

Earlier in the evening, I told my brother that I would ‘eat my hat if Trump wins Texas’. I thought it unlikely, but I began to entertain the idea of making a hat out of bread and consuming it. The light-heartedness persisted, but by 04.00, it had come mask my growing anxiety. My wee brother—though we probably occupy somewhat different political positions—offered consolation, because he is a sweetheart. He told me that he was sorry for the direction of the results. In response, I told him something along the lines of:

Don’t be sorry for me. Be sorry for the hundreds of thousands who will die because of Donald Trump’s pandemic policies. Be sorry for the hundreds of children who are separated from their parents and are forced to live in camps. Be sorry for people with pre-existing conditions who will have their healthcare stripped. Be sorry for the blacks who will keep suffering oppression under a government that doesn’t believe in institutional racism. Be sorry for the people who will keep losing their homes and their lives due to climate change. Be sorry for the poor who are only getting poorer. Be sorry for a lot of other people, but not for me.

I admit that I am somewhat embarrassed by the dramatic tone, but this election is not about mere personal preferences. I believe that people’s lives are in the balance. I am heartbroken by the growing chasm between political factions. I will not weep because am a ‘snowflake’, nor will I weep because I am ‘liberal’. I may weep with anguish because I believe a better world is possible and I am of the conviction that a second presidential term for Donald Trump would be another step in the wrong direction. For these reasons and many more, I may weep with anguish.

As for now, we are all in that place of waiting. Are we waiting for Lazarus to die or are we waiting for Lazarus to be raised again? We shall see.

Lord have mercy.

The Bankrupt Politics of ‘Again’ (& Why I Voted in the 2020 US Election)

‘Make America Great Again’. While this slogan has become synonymous with the political rise of Donald Trump, he is not the first to have used it. During the Third Session of the 76th United States Congress (1940), Republican Senator Alexander Wiley (1884-1967) said it in a speech. It featured in some campaign materials for the 1964 presidential campaign of Republican Barry Goldwater (1909-1998). In his 1980 campaign for president, Republican Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) used the phrase, ‘Let’s Make America Great Again’.

This slogan has not been limited to Republican use. In his 1992 presidential campaign, Democrat Bill Clinton used the phrase in several speeches and reiterated the phrase during Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.

When I think of the politics of ‘again’, I am compelled to reflect on its meaning. If someone is proposing to make America great again, the question arises, ‘When was America great?’

When considering America’s historical greatness, a return to the ‘Founding Fathers’ has become a conservative rally cry. If we are going with the Founding Fathers, we might ask, ‘Who were these people?’ For a start, as the name implies, they were all men. Additionally, they were all white men. Oh, and they were all Protestant (or at least, non-Catholic) white men. Also, they were all Protestant white men from the upper echelons of society.

According to notable American historian Richard B. Morris (1904-1989), the most significant and influential of these white Protestant upper-class men were John Adams (1735-1826), Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), Alexander Hamilton (c. 1755-1804) John Jay (1745-1829), Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), James Madison (1751-1836) and George Washington (1732-1799).[1] Of these seven men, five owned enslaved people at various points. Of those five, Franklin’s views tended toward abolitionism by the mid-1760s. In later life, Washington also expressed unease with the institution of slavery. Jay and Madison were owners of enslaved people and Jefferson was perhaps the chief slaver among the Founding Fathers, owning more than 600 enslaved people throughout his lifetime.


A brief aside on the United States Constitution: In short, the United States Constitution is an oddity. Brilliant and revolutionary as it might have been when it came into force in 1789, it is very much a document of the late eighteenth century, warts and all. Consider the opening words, ‘We the people…’ Of course, this really means ‘We the white men…’

The United States Constitution is the oldest national constitution still in use. Some might see that as evidence of its strength. Some might argue that subsequent amendments have made up for any of its weaknesses. A look at the 27 amendments that have been passed by Congress and ratified by the requisite number of states demonstrates how insufficient this procedure is. Between 1971, with the passage of the 26th Amendment (‘The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age’) and the present day, only one other amendment has passed. The 27th Amendment (ratified in 1992) states simply, ‘No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of representatives shall have intervened.’ The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was passed by Congress by 1972 and sent to states for ratification. This amendment includes the following three sections:

Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

Sec. 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

Sec. 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

Although the requisite number of states (38) approved the ERA in January 2020, two deadlines had already passed (1979 and 1982) and the amendment now resides in legal Limbo. Has society changed so little since 1971 that the 27th Amendment has been the only revision suitable for ratification? Maybe the whole project of the United States Constitution requires a revisit…


In the decades between the founding of the United States and the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), political stances concerning the institution of slavery depended largely on economic interests and not on genuine regard for equality. Of course, there were small groups of passionate abolitionists, especially among communities of Quakers. For their part, both Adams and Hamilton abhorred slavery. But it can be argued that the abolitionism of many (if not most) Northern politicians was fuelled by the desire to weaken the power of the Southern states, whose economies depended on the labour of enslaved people.

There seems to be a common myth among conservatives (especially among Confederate sympathisers) that the Civil War was about the rights of states. While this may have some truth, the primary ‘right’ for which the Southern states fought was the ‘right’ to own other human beings. There is no getting around this reality. I argue that the political tensions between the North and the South leading up to the Civil War were, by and large, issues concerning economics and power and at the heart of that, the institution of slavery. I would have to spend hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of words outlining these tensions, but I will just point to the Three-Fifths Compromise (1787) and Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) for now. And I have not even mentioned the horrific treatment of Amerindians.

So can we argue that America was great when it was founded? If you are a Protestant white man with economic power, then yes. It is possible that these would have been great times for you.

Still, there are others who wish to show some sensitivity, awareness or at least, nuance and will argue that America was great after the Civil War. Of course, this ‘greatness’ would only be experienced by a select few, namely, white men. It was not until 1870 that black men were given the right to vote. This is not to say that black men were able to vote. Voter suppression has a long and successful history in the United States. This does not even begin to scratch the surface the institutional oppression of people of colour and of women in the United States (de facto institutional segregation endures today). If you, like Donald Trump, Mike Pence, et al, believe that institutional racism in the United States does not exist, consider yourself very fortunate – you have not experienced that reality, at least, not from the perspective of the oppressed. But simply because you do not believe that to be born as a person of colour does not place one at a significant disadvantage does not dismiss this reality for tens of millions of residents of the United States. Maybe it would be enlightening to listen to their stories.

What if we fast-forward to passage of the 19th Amendment (1920)? This gave women the right to vote in the United States. Well, not all women. This was a better time for white women. It was not until the landmark Voting Rights Act (1965) that voting became universal, in theory. Believe it or not, voter suppression continues to this day. It is even touted by the Executive Branch of the US Government: if the Trump Administration is harping on about ‘widespread voter fraud’ concerning to mail-in ballots (a proven myth), why have both Donald Trump and Mike Pence encouraged their followers to turn up at polling stations (where people vote in-person) to intimidate voters?

So when was America great? This seems to be where reasonable discussion really starts to break down. There are plenty of other key political moments before which one might call the greatness of America into question. For example, I am thinking of the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade (1973), granting women the right to choose what to do with their bodies and of the long road to the legalisation of same-sex marriage. The issues of women’s rights and the rights of queer people seem to be split right down party lines between the Democrats and the Republicans.

For those who want to ‘make America great again’, here is a question: is America less great when individuals are afforded the rights to choose what they want to do with their own bodies and the freedom to embrace their own sexuality and gender? Perhaps you are a staunch feminist (one who believes that all genders should have equal rights in society) who also believes that a foetus is a living human being and should be afforded all the rights of a human being. I can understand that perspective. That being said, there is nothing in the legalisation of abortion that forces anyone to undergo that traumatising experience against their will. Perhaps if American society cared for people after birth (for example, through proper social and health care), the abortion figures, relatively modest as they are, would change. Of course, I am trying to be as sympathetic to the anti-abortion lobby as possible here since I can comprehend some of the philosophical tensions that can come into play. Still, part of me fears that the issue of abortion in the United States is more tied to fanatical patriarchy (which has hijacked religion) than genuine philosophical reflection.

So you want to make America great again? When was America great? I am of the belief that there has never been a time in American history when more human rights and freedoms (I am assuming that this is a suitable measure of ‘greatness’) have been exercised than in this last decade. This is not to say that America is ‘great’ in the present. I will explain what I mean by this in a moment.

When I think of the politics of ‘again’, I cannot help but believe that anyone who holds to the notion that the United States was once a ‘greater’ nation than it has been in this last decade has not suffered from true, institutional oppression.

I know that Donald Trump has some supporters who are people of colour, who are women, who are working class. One way I believe that he and others like him bid for the affections of certain people groups is through accusing other oppressed people groups of inflicting this oppression. Are you a white, American-born man living in relative poverty? Why not blame this on the immigrants who come into the country to ‘steal your jobs’? (This is not even close to the worst things of which Donald Trump has accused immigrants.) Donald Trump and people like him thrive off of blaming others for society’s shortcomings. Perhaps it is not the immigrants who inflict damage to society (speaking economically, it is a fact that immigrants give far more to society than they take). Perhaps we should turn our gaze toward the powerful who have reaped unimaginable riches from the misfortune of others. What about those financiers who grew more wealthy as the housing market collapsed in 2008, forcing more than 2,000,000 foreclosures? What about the more recent example of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, whose wealth has increased by more than $74 billion while American unemployment has skyrocketed? Neo-liberal capitalistic ideals propagate the myth that if one works hard one will receive just compensation – the ‘American Dream’. In reality, individual economic prosperity is more often the result of the circumstances of one’s birth or of random chance. While this lottery plays out, the gap between the wealthy and the poor in the United States continues to increase.

Now I shall explain what I mean by suggesting that America might not be ‘great’ at present through an brief exploration of my personal faith and how it relates to my political views.

Some people might suggest that faith and politics should not mix. While I am in favour of the strict separation of Church and State, this is not because I believe that faith has nothing to say to politics. On the contrary, one of my theological heroes, Uruguayan Jesuit priest and theologian Juan Luis Segundo (1925-1996) argues that the two are bound together:

Every theology is political, even one that does not speak or think in political terms. The influence of politics on theology and every other cultural sphere cannot be evaded any more than the influence of theology on politics and other spheres of human thinking. The worst politics of all would be to let theology perform this function unconsciously, for that brand of politics is always bound up with the status quo.[2]

By ‘theology’, Segundo is referring to the study of the divine – of God and of religion. The issue he has with the ‘status quo’ involves ideology. The status quo is the way things are, the state of affairs. In order to accept the way things are (or indeed, to hope for the way things were), one’s faith has to cohere with the ideologies of the present. For example, my faith compels me to desire equality among all human beings. Where I see inequality, such as racial, gender or sexual inequality, I am compelled to challenge the status quo.

In essence, this comes down to the person of Christ, Jesus of Nazareth. I think of the writings of German philosopher Ernst Bloch (1885-1977). Although an adherent to the Marxism of the Frankfurt School, Bloch took it upon himself to revisit the Bible. In his studies, he did not find the ‘opium of the people’ (‘das Opium des Volkes’) observed by Marx in the Christian religion. While it is an established historical fact that the Christian faith had evolved from its primitive collectivist existence to adopt an institutional hierarchy (the institution against which Marx railed), Bloch finds within the Bible a Christianity that speaks for the oppressed against the status quo. For Bloch, this Christianity is one of atheism, that is, one in which the ideologies of power are challenged for the flourishing of the oppressed. In his 1968 book, Atheismus im Christentum (published in English as Atheism in Christianity in 1972), Bloch makes this case and concludes that, upon analysing the Christian Bible, the reputed motto inscribed on sixteenth-century German peasant leader, Florian Geyer’s sword—‘Nulla crux, nulla corona’, ‘No cross, no crown’—‘could be the motto of a Christianity free, at last, from alienation. And the far-reaching, inexhaustible depths of emancipation in those words could also serve as a motto for a Marxism aware of its depths.’[3]

In a similar way, I see my faith as one of committed and persistent challenge to the status quo. I turn to Jesus. From his birth to his resurrection, he is the living embodiment of what Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) calls ‘the Offense’. While being the ‘God-Man’, Jesus is perceived by onlookers ‘as a mere human individual who comes into collision with the established order.’[4] He is a living affront to those who have most to lose through his existence.

Jesus’ genealogy as recorded in the Gospel of St Matthew (Matthew 1.1-16) mentions five women (an oddity at that time): Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and Mary. Each one of these women would have been viewed with sexual suspicion, especially in the patriarchal, honour and shame culture of Palestine during the first century. Tamar disguised herself as a sex worker to sleep with her father-in-law (Judah). Rahab was understood to have been a sex worker by trade. Ruth was understood to have entered the bed of a man (Boaz) who was not her husband. Bathsheba fell pregnant with one man (David) while she was still married to another (Uriah). Then there is Mary, who conceived before she was married (Matthew 1.18).

From there, Jesus’ life only grows in offense to the status quo. John the Baptist preceded Jesus, preaching a radical message of the coming Messiah and the kingdom of God. But Jesus’ ministry modelled a Messiah that most religious leaders (including John the Baptist) struggled to accept (Mathew 11.2-19). German Reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann argues that ‘the appearance and activity of Jesus was a novelty which was bound to arouse resistance.’[5]

Throughout his life and ministry as recorded in the Gospels, Jesus makes speeches and performs actions that outrage the powerful constantly. The incident of his cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem (Matthew 21.12-17; Mark 11.15-19; Luke 19.45-48; John 2.13-16) is one of the most well-known. Moltmann observes Jesus’ subversion against the national symbols of Israel and argues that ‘in view of the whole of his scandalous message’ it is the condemnation of Jesus as a ‘“blasphemer”, as a demagogic false Messiah’ that ultimately precipitates his execution.[6]


A brief aside on the crucifixion event: It is a common understanding among at least the Evangelical Christian sect that Jesus was crucified because that was God’s plan to save those who choose to believe in Christ from eternal conscious punishment (Hell). I have issues with seeing God’s ‘plan’ in this way. I also have issues with assuming that belief is a choice (the letter to the Church in Asia Minor, known as Ephesians, describes faith as a ‘gift’). At this stage, I will not get too wrapped up exploring my understanding of the nature of belief or of how seeing belief as a choice is actually a form of ‘earning’ the grace of God (I have explored this before). Elsewhere, my blog-mate Greg has explored at least one alternative to the belief in ‘eternal conscious punishment’. For my part—please do not let this put you, dear reader, off—I believe that the grace and love of God is so enormous that the inheritance of the kingdom of God is for all of us dirty sinners. What I really want to say here is that Jesus was crucified because he opposed the powerful. The build-up to his crucifixion is observed throughout the Gospels. Jesus says or does something, the powerful are offended and seek to have him killed. It happens again and again until, at last, they stir up a crowd in a murderous fervour and appeal to their Roman enemy—another insecure power broker—to send him to the cross. Food for thought.


And yet, Jesus’ subversive work did not end with his crucifixion. His next great affront to the status quo, according to the Gospels, was to subvert death itself through his resurrection.

Please trust me when I express that I could spend a lifetime exploring the profound political implications found in every aspect of the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. If you are interested in testing this for yourself, I encourage you to give the Gospels a read (or a re-read with fresh eyes).

The early Christians were similarly revolutionary. They sold all of their possessions and ‘had all things in common’ (Acts 2.44). Their existence promoted equality among all people: ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3.28). Their faith was so disruptive to the status quo of the Roman Empire that they became enemies of the State. Their very existence was seen as a threat to the security of the Roman Empire – the preservation of their Roman ‘way of life’ (including patriarchy and its corresponding institutional slavery and sexism). They were forced to gather in secret and faced imprisonment, torture and death for their counter-cultural faith.

The issue of faith and politics, in a superficial and highly problematic sense, seems to appeal to the ‘Make America Great Again’ crowd. I have heard it said that ‘America is a Christian nation’ or ‘America used to be a Christian nation’. These views have been expressed by Donald Trump in one form or another. I have several serious concerns regarding this characterisation because of its association of Christianity with the status quo (whether presently or historically). I do not believe that any country can be called a ‘Christian nation’ as I do not believe that Christianity is bound to any human institution (Christendom ≠ Christianity). I believe that Christianity exists to make the kingdom of God a reality for the flourishing of all people and no amount of legislation can make that happen. In other words, no individual, no society, no institution, no government is so perfect that it evades serious, foundational challenge from the Gospel of Christ. This is not to say that individuals, societies, institutions and governments cannot reach for the ideals of the kingdom of God. But this ideal will never be achieved so long as people are governed by insecurity, selfishness and a lust for power and wealth.

Therefore, I believe that the ‘Christian position’ (if such a thing can exist) is one of perpetual opposition. This is not opposition to reason, justice, equity, sound science, etc. Instead, the Christian position reads the ‘signs of the times’ and, through critical reflection, considers how the Gospel of Christ speaks to the present. The Christian position is one that looks at the bodies of murdered people of colour and shouts, ‘Never again!’ The Christian position is one that looks at mass incarceration and shouts, ‘No more!’ The Christian position looks at extravagant wealth in the midst of obscene poverty and shouts, ‘Not on our watch!’ The Christian position looks at the exploitation of the natural world—God’s world—and shouts, ‘We must all change how we live!’ The Christian position is glad to share. The Christian position does not put any one nation ‘first’. The Christian position is desperate for the liberation of all humans from every form of oppression. The Christian position is not afraid of being challenged, of growing, of evolving, because it is self-consciously aware of its own shortcomings, its own inability to get everything right. The Christian position is a perpetual student and servant of the oppressed. The more I expound this ‘Christian position’ the more I see St Paul’s words from his first letter to the Church in Corinth:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.[7]

The Christian position is embodied in the person of Christ, the broken, subversive, oppositional Saviour, the Jesus of Nazareth who is the name of love.

Among people in the United States who wish to discredit my political beliefs, I have often heard, ‘You don’t know – you don’t live here.’ The latter part of that statement is true. I have not resided in the United States for over a decade. Some argue that this puts me at a serious disadvantage with regard to meaningful engagement with the political discourse in the United States. While I cannot discount the possibility that I might not have first-hand knowledge of some contemporary experiences, I did spend the majority of my life in the United States. Although my views have continued to grow and change over the years (thanks be to God), some of my most enduring beliefs took root while I was very much a resident of the United States. Additionally, I believe that as someone who has lived outside of the United States for more than a decade, I have reasonable experience of life elsewhere. I believe that this has broadened my perspective. This is not to say that I believe things are all hunky dory where I live now. My oppositional views are not reserved for the United States. I can see both positives and negatives in my adopted country.

On the most basic level, when criticised for living elsewhere, I reiterate that I am a citizen of the United States and I have every right of a citizen of the United States, including the right and civic duty to vote. Having expressed this, my honest admission is that I have not always felt compelled to vote in United States elections since living abroad. This is partly because I was confident in the voting trends of the constituency where I have been registered for more than 16 years. Of course, this is not an excuse, but more of an explanation. If large swathes of society chose not to vote because they believed that their constituency would vote the way they wanted, then very few people would turn up and democracy would be undermined. Mind you, I believe that the Electoral College has already done a stellar job of undermining democracy, at least in terms of presidential elections. The reality that the person with the most representation at the polls is not necessarily the person who wins an election might be quite discouraging for many.

One of the most damning realities that I have faced in choosing to participate fully in this upcoming election is the fact that in 2016, Hillary Clinton received 65,853,514 votes, Donald Trump received 62,984,828 votes around 100,000,000 eligible voters did not participate. Two out of every five eligible voters did not turn up. I am but one person, but I am one of those 100,000,000. I have not lost any sleep over it, but those figures are enough for me to step up and battle through the awkward bureaucratic hoops required in order to vote from abroad.

Perhaps, dear reader, you have read this and think, ‘Obvious Democrat’ or ‘Obvious Republican’. Maybe the latter is less likely. For the record, I oppose both parties. That is not to say that my idealism overrides my pragmatism with regard to this election. I did cast what might be considered a ‘protest vote’ in 2012. This was not because I was especially unhappy with the Obama Administration at that time (I was unhappy, but I would have been even more discontent with a Romney-Ryan Administration). I voted for Jill Stein, ill-equipped as she might have been, because I had grown very tired of a two-party system where both of those parties are not so far from one another as they would like to believe. And while I believe that, in general, the Democrats and Republicans are different shades of the same political ideology on a broad political spectrum, there has been a vocal shift to the right in the American political landscape over the last decade or so. This is toward a bankrupt politics of ‘again’.

This shift right is not the result of an increased political literacy. Reactionary right-wing language has become normalised by Donald Trump. He views immigrants, especially those who are also people of colour, with disdain. He demonstrates routine bigotry against anyone who is not like him – namely, women and people of colour. He uses derogatory language and tone against other nations, such as China. He acts like a bully toward anyone who might dare to disagree with him. He threatens the free press. He perpetuates conspiracy theories. He refuses to condemn all forms of white supremacy in no uncertain terms. He rejects scientific consensus when it conflicts with his pandering to the powerful. (This has played out in his dangerous environmental policies as well as his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.) I cannot trust a person who uses superlatives as loosely as he does. Everything he inherited as president was the ‘worst’, everything he has done has been the ‘best’. He has done ‘more’ for people of colour and for women than any other president in history. Is it not the right of these groups to decide who has done the most for them? At best, Donald Trump is an obscene braggart.

Donald Trump cannot be blamed for the whole of this mean-spirited and deluded political climate. With few exceptions, those from Donald Trump’s own party who once opposed him have thrown their support behind him with reckless abandon. They have adopted his language and demeanour. They have ‘sold their souls’ for a seat at his table.

This is not a rally cry to oppose Donald Trump or the Republican Party. I know that the majority of Americans have already decided who they want in office for the next four years. I only hope that in sharing my thoughts here—random and disjointed as they may be—that some people might be encouraged to keep up with the wrestle between politics and faith (or any other ideology).

I have already cast my ballot for this election. I have researched all of the local measures and candidates. I can only say that I have voted out of a conviction that my faith compels me to challenge all forms of oppression and injustice. I hope that people of all faiths and no faith have done or will do the same.


[1] Richard B. Morris, Seven Who Shaped Our Destiny: The Founding Fathers as Revolutionaries (New York: Harper & Row, 1973).

[2] Juan Luis Segundo, The Liberation of Theology, trans. John Drury (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1977), 74.

[3] Ernst Bloch, Atheism in Christianity, trans. J. T. Swann (London: Verso, 2009), 256.

[4] Søren Kierkegaard, Training in Christianity and the Edifying Discourse Which ‘Accompanied’ It, trans. Walter Lowrie (New York: Vintage, 2004), 71.

[5] Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology, trans. R. A. Wilson and John Bowden (London: SCM, 1974), 128.

[6] Ibid.

[7] 1 Corinthians 13 (NRSV).

Alien in a Strange Land

Spectrum

What I am about to share may be news to some of my friends, but will be no new revelation to a great many others. I now know at the age of 30 what I have suspected for a number of years. It is time for me to emerge from the feigned comfort of a figurative closet, despite my deep longing to seek refuge, and to share with my family, both my biological family and my sociological family, that I live with autism spectrum disorder.

I’ve been reluctant to share this because I believe it will be perceived as me making a mountain out of a molehill. For some, the first thought might be, ‘No you don’t.’ Despite my desire for the opposite to be true, these folk are wrong. Others might think, ‘Well, we’re all on the spectrum somewhere, aren’t we?’ And while the latter may be true to some extent, I have been diagnosed as severely impaired (not a ‘weekend’ autism). This is a disability. I know that it might not appear that way at first glance. Unbeknownst to me, I have been struggling with this autism throughout my life. I have learned a lot about what is and is not acceptable in social interactions (and I still have much to learn). Some might think, ‘Well, don’t we all have to learn that?’ Once again, I would agree to some extent. But part of what makes an autistic person different is that we lack the social intuition that makes this happen naturally. A bicycle with a flat tyre might roll, but it won’t soon be carrying the winner of the Tour de France. I am grateful for the resources I have discovered to help me get by while seeming relatively ‘normal’. But because this is learned—something ‘put on’ like a jumper—I make mistakes. Sometimes my head ends up in a sleeve or I’ve put it on back-to-front.

My sisters and brothers (and those in between and outwith that dichotomy) who inhabit this strange world whilst living with ASD – though we represent a broad spectrum of ability, we are united in the extraordinary challenges we face and the extraordinary beauty that we embody. For myself, I’m not sure how much of that statement I believe with all of my heart, but I can say that we see the world in a very different way. Sometimes this world is frightening. Sometimes it is a world full of wonder. But it is always an alien world, perceived through a degree of social ineptitude and, for some of us, an oversensitivity to external stimuli that sets us apart from our neurotypical sisters and brothers.

In both the past and the present we have been social outcasts, but this strange world is our world too. We have a voice, whether that is one spoken aloud, through a speech device, or even uttered within our own minds. We are an invaluable part of the fabric of society – without us something essential would be missing.

To be clear, I am no way making myself out to be a spokesperson for all people living with ASD. I am new to this realisation and I can only speak from my experience. But who am I? That’s a difficult question for me to answer. I’ve spent my entire life learning to put on ‘normal’ (with varying degrees of success). I feel that I must do this because of the negative responses I have received for not behaving a certain way. So very much of what many people take for granted as natural practice within social interactions are things that I have had to learn and things with which I continue to struggle. It takes a massive amount of cognitive energy to maintain even a flawed version of ‘normality’. And I’m still learning. When a behaviour is not natural, I make some embarrassing—or even worse—hurtful mistakes. All too often I misinterpret what I am told. When I see someone has a new haircut—stop everything—I must tell them that I’ve noticed, even if they are midsentence. The same goes for other aspects of physical appearance – it’s not okay to point out every feature, especially when someone has a lazy eye or a new plook. When is it my turn to speak? When should I stop talking? Phone calls are a pretty horrendous. These things are just the very tip of my particular autistic iceberg.

Maybe you’re reading this and thinking, ‘There’s nothing unusual there.’ That’s kind of you. Please spend a few hours with me and tell me that I’ve not made any social errors – it’s a rarity. And when we meet, please don’t touch me unless I tell you that it’s okay.

So who am I? To be honest, I don’t really know. Maybe none of us can answer that question. For me, I don’t know how to disentangle fully the learned behaviour from the kernel of ‘Elijah’. When presented with of all of the opportunities set before me, it’s very easy to overwork, a vice if ever there was one. I’ve always had a tendency toward busyness. In the face of this busyness, there is a great need for me to refocus, to remember who I am as Elijah: the person, the disciple of Jesus. ‘Know thyself’, ‘γνῶθι σεαυτόν’, a pre-Socratic maxim featured in Western thought for several thousand years. It is not an unusual challenge. I’m working on it.

I’m not sure if sharing all of this is yet another faux pas, but I’m grasping at straws. I’m trying to make sense of it all. I need to figure out what resources there are to help me on this journey. And if you’d like to help, thank you. I need it. We need it. We need patience and understanding. We need respect and equality. We need love, even if we’re not the best at expressing it.

Best Albums of 2016

best-albums-of-2016

Remember us? Neither do we. On with the show.

Love,
Greg & Elijah

Elijah’s Top 10 Albums of 2016

nattesferd

10. Nattesferd  Kvelertak — Listening to Nattesferd, Kvelertak’s third full length album, is something like travelling back in time. The album is a marked departure from aural onslaught of their previous record (2013’s Meir, produced by one of my all-time favies, Converge’s Kurt Ballou). Don’t get me wrong, Nattesferd is an onslaught, but of a much different nature. Fears that Kvelertak might be headed toward a more mainstream rock sound are allayed continually throughout this 47-minute masterclass in capturing the familiar energy, precision and fun of the American heavy metal sound of the early eighties and the aggression and fullness of the Norwegian black metal sound of the 21st century without losing any of their respective charms.

puberty-2

9. Puberty 2  Mitski — There are two distinctive threads running through Puberty 2. Firstly, there is innovation and a refusal to adopt a singular form of songwriting. Mitski demonstrates that she can write high quality and accessible pop tunes (see ‘Your Best American Girl’) whilst verging on proto-grungey post-punk (see ‘My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars’) and occupying more familiar, yet refreshing indie territory in between. The second thread demonstrates that Puberty 2‘s variety is not the result of simply compiling tracks from across a repertoire — this is Mitski’s fourth album. Looking past the fact that she’s only 25 (what have we done with our lives?), Mitski is demonstrating that she is a seasoned and consummate artist.

next-thing

8. Next Thing  Frankie Cosmos — Next Thing is the epitome of ‘big things in small packages’. This album lasts under a half an hour, with the longest of its fifteen tracks lasting only 164 seconds (that’s 2:44). But the listener will not feel cheated. Somehow, Frankie Cosmos (22-year-old Greta Kline) is able to capture complete, common, yet complicated thoughts with each track. In fact, the album is summed up quite well by the cover. As you can see, the perspective of the image is from that of a passenger in a car, doodling in a notebook. At the same time, the passenger is revealed to be using a mobile to take a photograph – captured as the cover image itself. The car is veering left, perhaps making a turn to the ‘Next Thing’. We also observe typical things – a fallen tree branch, a littered plastic bag, paw prints, a car driving off in the distance. It’s a brilliantly simple yet interesting composition, much like the record.

skeleton-tree

7. Skeleton Tree  Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds — This album, as so many albums on my list this year, caught me by surprise. I first heard ‘Jesus Alone’ on 6 Music on 2 September and I knew Skeleton Tree was going to be special. The production was sparse and moving. Cave had moved from his typical narrative formula (in the accompanying documentary, One More Time with Feeling, Cave claims that he has lost his faith in narrative-based songs). The rest of the album reflects these shifts. With both the stirring words and ambient musical tone, Cave is reflecting on a profound sense of loss (having lost his young son Arthur in the summer of 2015) and engaging in some serious existential inquiries. So really, Skeleton Tree is not so atypical of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds after all.

teens-of-denial

6. Teens of Denial  Car Seat Headrest — There’s been a slight tendency toward slacker rock in my listening this past year. It’s probably a hangover from 2014’s GARAGE ROCK BONANZA. When Car Seat Headrest’s Teens of Denial first appeared on my radar, I despised the names of both the band and the album. But as with a lot of things in life, those become invisible or at least inconsequential to an individual once a relationship is solidified. I could write a lot about this record, but Greg expresses it so well that I’ll cede the floor to him for this one (see Greg’s comment on Teens of Denial below).

painting-of-a-panic-attack

6. Painting of a Panic Attack  Frightened Rabbit — A familiar face. I’m going to be honest here: when I first heard this record I was convinced that I would consider it nearly, if not the weakest Frightened Rabbit album to date. Something about it fell flat for me. So I put it away for a few months. Maybe six months. Then I picked it up again – I knew there had to be something I was missing. Even upon the first re-listen I asked myself, ‘Was I even paying attention?’ It was as if I had never heard these songs. And they were actually quite good! Maybe you share my initial impression. If you have not got back to Painting of a Panic Attack, I implore you to give it another shot. I admit that there are times when it feels less adventurous/emotionally porous than FR’s other material, but there is a quality to the songwriting (thanks to the ever insightful pen of Scott Hutchison) and production (thanks in part to the National’s Aaron Dessner) that keeps me listening.

emotions-and-math

4. Emotions and Math Margaret Glaspy — Margaret Glaspy’s debut album makes one wonder, what comes next? Emotions and Math is as competent and complete as a veteran release. That’s not say that Glaspy has gone stale – far from it! She touches on Aimee Mann and Elliott Smith in equal measure and brings her own sophisticated musical sensibilities to the table in well packaged yet positively aggressive and unpolished pop rock tunes. Emotions and Math improves upon subsequent listens and leaves us thirsty for what Glaspy will do next.

a-moon-shaped-pool

3. A Moon Shaped Pool  Radiohead — I’ve done the maths and have discovered that the period between The King of Limbs and A Moon Shaped Pool is the longest gap between Radiohead albums since their first release, way back in 1993. That’s five years, two months and 20 days between KoL and AMSP! I know it might not seem like much, but perhaps you will remember that long gap between Hail to the Thief and In Rainbows – a mere four years, four months and one day. Okay, maybe it’s not so much about the quantity of time between records as it is the quality of material on each record that leaves us thirsting for more. The King of Limbs has its charms, including the special edition packaging, featuring the world’s first (and probably last) ‘newspaper edition’. But it fails to reach the bar set by previous releases, especially since In Rainbows seems to have become so loved amongst the Radiohead intelligentsia. But A Moon Shaped Pool proves to be not so much a simple return to form as it is a uniquely profound yet thoroughly ‘Radiohead’ collection of haunting and atmospheric orchestrations. It is unassuming, gritty, yet polished. It is all the things for which we admire Radiohead and with an added expanse of lyrical coherence.

my-woman

2. My Woman  Angel Olsen — Angel Olsen is another familiar face among my end-of-the-year picks. Her previous record, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, was my third favourite album of 2014. When an artist produces something as good as Olsen’s previous outing, it’s difficult to know how to approach subsequent releases. Should one set high standards only to be disappointed or should one go in expecting the worst? I was still weighing out this question when I first heard My Woman. According to Olsen, the album’s themes revolve around ‘the complicated mess of being a woman’. As one who does not self-identify as a woman, I believe this album also has plenty of energy to contribute to ‘the complicated mess of being a human’. Olsen’s lyrical, vocal and musical presence is stronger than ever and the record seems to hold together more fully than her earlier releases. In complete self-awarness, she addresses themes of despair, broken expectations and ultimately, hope, all borne with her trademark wit and defiant boldness.

masterpiece

1. Masterpiece  Big Thief — It’s been a while since I’ve been so completely surprised by an album. There are great albums from great artists that I can see coming from miles away (such as Sufjan Stevens’ masterful Carrie & Lowell from 2015) and there are the general surprises that make me a new fan (such as Emotions and Math and Teens of Denial above). But then there’s something like Big Thief’s Masterpiece. I had already heard the album before I realised it was released on Omaha-based Saddle Creek Records, which might have coloured my first listen with Midwestern angst. But the Midwestern angst found me over the course of that first listen. I grant that this is all becoming a wee bit self-indulgent for an Angeleño-Glaswegian commenting on an album from a Brooklyn-based band that reminds him of the American Midwest. (To give me some tenuous credit, singer/guitarist Adrianne Lenker is from Minneapolis.) But there are serious, though probably unintentional musical and vocal hints of the Anniversary (1997-2004) among others, which is enough to send me spiraling into an adolescence-fueled hunt for a [misplaced] sense of ‘authenticity’. Because of these fleeting emotions, I feel some sort of shame that I can’t help but make this album my top pick of 2016. Beyond these fleeting emotions, Masterpiece is an album with superior breadth and depth, musically and thematically, driven by Lenker and Buck Meek’s vocals and guitars, completely deserving of any scanty honour that I may offer. It will haunt me well into 2017, which, unlike UK and American politics, is no bad thing.

Honourable Mentions

  • Love  Muscle and Marrow
  • You Want it Darker  Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)
  • Slow Forever  Cobalt
  • Blackstar  David Bowie (1947-2016)
  • Air  Astronoid

Greg’s Top 10 Albums of 2016

everything-at-once

10. Everything At Once  Travis — Elijah may be holding his nose with this choice, but I felt like these Scottish lads (who’ve been together for 26 years!) finally found their way back to the simple, lovely tunefulness of their turn of the century apex (The Man Who, The Invisible Band) with this strong release. I’m a sucker for the gentle melancholic hopefulness of Fran Healy’s voice (check out 2:03 on this video) and shimmering indie instrumentation of the band.

winter-lives

9. Winter Lives  Matt Pond PA — I have a weak spot for this chamber-pop troubadour. He once again demonstrates a songwriting brilliance that has made me love his poppy, life-affirming tunesmithery over the years. His voice has such a perfect sincerity and tone, the lyrical nostalgia of songs like ‘The Glow’ and ‘Whoa (Thirteen and Sledding with Kerry in Northern New Hampshire)’ warmed my sentimental heart, and the arrangements are solid and masterful.

light-upon-the-lake

8. Light Upon the Lake  Whitney — You listen to this album and you wonder, what time-machine did these guys fall out of with their perfect falsetto over tight bass/drum combo and 60’s & 70’s guitar sounds. They may be aching for those ‘golden days’ but for my money, they’ve captured them quite perfectly here.

arranging-time

7. Arranging Time  Pete Yorn — Ah Pete Yorn, yet another brilliant songwriting flame from the early 2k’s that had somewhat flickered out over the years (a la Travis). But he found that former fuel somewhere and picked up right where musicforthemorningafter left off with this new release. Check out tracks 1-3, ‘Shopping Mall’ and ‘Walking Up” for shambling, big-hearted, melodic indie goodness.

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6. Not To Disappear  Daughter — Oh her voice just slays me from the first word to the last: like smoke hitting a rain-covered window. Her elegant lyrical delivery taps into the deepest sadness you could imagine, but then soars into the sun over a cascade of guitars and throttling drums (check this video out, as well as this one and fail to be impressed).

a-moon-shaped-pool

5. A Moon Shaped Pool  Radiohead — This collection of songs (arranged alphabetically it seems) took a bit to grow on me. Initially, I thought it was just some stray songs they’d never really finalized that they’d figured they would finally put on a record, but as I listened more carefully, it opened itself up to me—a staggering heartbreak woven through with gorgeous orchestration and unexpected turns of phrase and melody. They are back at the heights of their powers after the floundering The King of Limbs.

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4. The Birds Outside Sang  Florist — This is just a gentle, artless, and moving reckoning of dealing with the aftermath of a serious accident. The singer’s voice is fragile, child-like, but full of wonder and hard won wisdom…remembering the light coming into the room where she lay recovering, re-imagining the moment of the accident, but also whimsically meditating on the beauty and capriciousness of life. The instrumentation is lo-fi guitar strumming, Casio keyboard humming, and some droning organs, with the occasional full-band kicking in to make a point.  It’s just so sweet and tender—the mending of a confused soul.  (You can sample the record here. I particularly love the title track.)

painting-of-a-panic-attack

3. Painting of a Panic Attack  Frightened Rabbit — Ok, earlier I had told Elijah this wouldn’t probably be on the upper half of my top 10, but as I’ve gone through and listened again to the 12 tracks, it really is strong (I was basing my early sense of the album on the deluxe edition with 3 extra b-side worthy tunes). I think I was initially turned off by some of the ‘radio-friendly’ tendencies I was picking up (‘Get Out’, ‘An Otherwise Disappointing Life’) and though it loses it’s way a bit on the second half, man, when you listen to ‘Death Dream’ and ‘I Wish I was Sober’ and ‘Still Want To Be Here’ and ‘400 Bones’, it’s clearly the same undeniable genius we’ve celebrated on their last 3 albums.

are-you-serious

2. Are You Serious  Andrew Bird — I’ve always been a fan of the Birdman, but sometimes his meandering obscurity (addressed here on the title track: ‘Used to be so willfully obtuse / or is the word abstruse? / Semantics like a noose / get out your dictionaries’) and multi-layered loop tracks could sometimes become a bit tiresome. Here, he is the TIGHTEST he’s ever been with a strong backing band, streamlined songwriting, and his most straightforward reflections (‘this is all non-fiction’) delivered sincerely alongside delicious whistled melodies. It’s an almost perfect album (save the two-chord gruelling groove ‘Truth Lies Low’).

teens-of-denial

1. Teens of Denial  Car Seat Headrest — I resisted listening to this album for a long time, despite (or because of?) the accolades coming in from various quarters of musicdom. I can’t remember what made me give in, but I’m so glad I did not hold out one moment longer. This is a concept album about a troubled teen exploring some deep universal themes (mortality, depression, anxiety) and others more teen angst-y (experimenting with drugs, drunk driving, relationship drama). The vocalist sounds (and reads) like two parts Ray Davies (Kinks), one part Beck, one part Stephen Malkmus (Pavement) with a dash of Black Francis (Pixies) to taste. The sound of the record is a blend of 90’s alternative rock (open chords through chunky overdrive pedal; double-tracked vocals) mixed with kind of a classic rock aesthetic (hello cowbell!), but as with all of the artists on this list, the song is king (the only number I’m not crazy about is the nearly 8 minute jam ‘Vincent’). This kid is only in his early 20’s but, to my ears, he has already been writing songs for years that hold their own with the greatest ever written.

Honourable Mentions

  • 22, A Million  Bon Iver — I actually like this experimental collection from the falsetto king, but it just didn’t seem substantial enough to qualify as a full-length LP—it’s only like 22 minutes and 22 seconds long (hey wait a second, that was on purpose!!).
  • Young Mood  Colt — It really is a great collection of songs—I just couldn’t get over the singer’s grating, narcoleptic baritone voice.
  • I also didn’t find the time to listen more carefully to a few records from artists I admire (Remember Us to Life Regina Spektor and Ruminations Conor Oberst, so they perhaps would have ended up on this list had I given their albums some attention).  I also want to keep my ears tuned to the Spanish alt/indie band Mourn, who had a so-so album come out, but have potential to be a great band in the days ahead.

Dishonourable Mentions

  • Painting With  Animal Collective — Not as bad as 2012’s Centipede Hz, this album still failed to make much of a dent in the AC canon, which is so disappointing as I love this band so much.
  • Mangy Love  Cass McCombs — I swing back and forth on this guy from album to album, but I almost felt like he was pranking his audience with this collection of his usual esoteric lyricism put to “easy listening” accompaniment.  It won many fans in a wide range of music critics, but I’m calling the Emperor’s New Clothes on this one.
  • Here  Teenage Fanclub — Oh how I love these Scottish indie gods, but this album, their 10th LP, bored me to tears.

Best Albums of 2015

Best of 2015

Not a single Lost in the Cloud post in 2015. We could give excuses, but we don’t think anyone is suffering without our ramblings (Greg and I have an audience weekly in our respective congregations…). We won’t insult our readers with elaborate promises of innumerable posts to follow in 2016. All we can do is offer you our modest annual delight, albeit a wee bit late. This being 6 January, for your Epiphanic pleasure, we hope you find some winners amongst our favourites.

Love,
Greg & Elijah

Elijah’s Top 10 Albums of 2015

10. Brace the Wave  Lou Barlow — Former and present Dinosaur Jr. bassist, a songwriter so dear to the hearts of both of your Losers in the Cloud, has returned for his first studio album since 2009’s Goodnight Unknown. Admittedly, there are a few tracks that don’t stand up as well as others, but in Aristotelian fashion, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Several tracks might even be considered some of Barlow’s finest.

deerhunter_all_the_same

9. Fading Frontier  Deerhunter — Gently, Bradford Cox pulls us into Fading Frontier. Those accustomed to the sometimes jarring brokenness of Deerhunter’s previous albums will find familiar hints in softer packages. Whilst not the greatest Deerhunter effort to date, Fading Frontier is full of excellent material, showcasing Cox’s ever-improving songwriting.

8. Weirdo Shrine  La Luz — Vague references to an erotic sci-fi-horror comic? No problem. Surf rock? Even better. La Luz’ second album, Weirdo Shrine, is full of instrumental, vocal and lyrical precision, wrapped tastefully in reverb and harmony. There’s a paradoxical playfulness and seriousness to singer Shana Cleveland’s lead, which, accompanied by equally paradoxical arrangements, makes Weirdo Shrine a supremely satisfying listen and causes me to long for those autumnal twilights along the Californian coast of my youth.

7. Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress  Godspeed You! Black Emperor — Neither ones for a short band name, nor short album titles nor short songs, Godspeed You! Black Emperor demonstrate once again that they’re not for settling down. The soundscapes of Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress are especially suited to a drookit trek through a Hebridean peat bog, but other contexts, such as sitting in your front room, having a shower, walking your dog or driving to work, are also suitable. Sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes distressing, sometimes triumphant and always moving, GY!BE deliver the goods.

6. Vulnicura  Björk — I wouldn’t say that as of late Björk has fallen out of favour in my listening patterns, but her last two records, Volta (2007) and Biophilia (2011), left me feeling less engaged than the previous three. This may well be due more in part of my own shortcomings than those of Björk. But Vulnicura has left me with something I cannot put down. As with most, though not all of my favourite records this year, this album is a grower. Upon every listen, I discover more to love. It is a complex sonic tapestry that demands attention. Unlike so many artists, Vulnicura proves that even as she approaches 51, Björk is brimming with creativity still. She also demonstrates her willingness to engage with fresh talent, collaborating with the Haxan Cloak and Arca, among others. Oh, and check this madness out:

5. I Love You, Honeybear  Father John Misty — FJM returns with a new record, but as Greg observes astutely, so returns J. Tillman’s ‘self-obsessed cynicism’. Surely there’s only so much one can take of a disaffected man, hellbent on constructing a new world around himself. But there’s another side to I Love You, Honeybear that stands out to this listener. The apocalyptic Americana bard could content himself with repeating the same winning formula with which we fell in love from Fear Fun (Greg’s top pick of 2012 and one of my honourable mentions). But he ventures elsewhere on Honeybear, bringing a fuller, heavier and more convicted sound to the record, earning him a mid-table slot on my list.

4. Viet Cong  Viet Cong — This debut release from the Canadian post-punkers is most definitely a grower. The onslaught of energy is apparent from the onset, but the finesse is the wee bit that reveals itself to you upon repeated listens. In what seems like a time when so many post-punk-labelled bands churn out album upon album of the same song, Viet Cong has done something extraordinary. The ground covered in Viet Cong far exceeds its seven-tracks over 37-minutes. The third track alone gives the listener six minutes and twenty seconds of breadth – a repetitive electronic introduction lulls the listener into head swaying territory, waiting for the floor to drop from beneath you with the oncoming deconstructed harmonies that build into relative despair before the return of a dance beat. It’s really something to hear for yourself: ‘March of Progress‘.

3. Depression Cherry  Beach House — Whilst finishing my doctoral dissertation this past autumn I was spending a lot of time listening to Cocteau Twins (engagement with shoegaze and dream pop formed a significant part of the third chapter). I have always sensed a kinship between Cocteau Twins and Beach House. A lad and a lass. Dreamy, simple arrangements. Idiosyncratic female vocals accompanied by reverberating and chorus-laden guitars. And although I would argue that Depression Cherry isn’t as easily consumed as Beach House’s previous albums, Cocteau Twins reminded me to be patient with their dream pop heirs. When one makes the time to absorb Depression Cherry, they will find some of Beach House’s strongest material. For example, I think that the sixth track, ‘PPP‘, is their best to date. I would encourage you to give this record a go — it’s worth every penny and every second.

2. Currents  Tame Impala — The Perth-based psychedelic rocker Kevin Parker has been a favourite of us here at Lost in the Cloud since we first heard Innerspeaker in 2010. The follow-up, Lonerism (2012), also impressed (though not as much for Greg as for me). But Currents is most assuredly ‘next level’. The persistence of the phased beat remains, as do Parker’s George Harrison-esque vocals. But Tame Impala is forging new boundaries. He is demonstrating what it means to evolve as a musician and doing so with expert precision and maturity. Tame Impala has not lost his psychedelic, trance-inducing edge — he’s just sharpened it.

1. Carrie & Lowell  Sufjan Stevens — It comes as no surprise to me that both Greg and I have chosen Carrie & Lowell for this top slot. It’s hard to believe that Illinois was released over a decade ago. Many of us Sufjan-obsessed lot wondered where he would go after that album. We saw him through his early songwriting, a mixture of delicate pop folk and low-fi noise (A Sun Came, 2000), through his electronic odyssey (Enjoy Your Rabbit, 2001), through his intensely personal meditations on life in the Midwest (Greetings from Michigan, 2003), joyous folk theodicy (Seven Swans, 2004) and outright indie pop. In danger of professing what may be blasphemy to many, I was never as sold on Illinois as a whole as I had been with his previous efforts. I feared that Sufjan wouldn’t find new territory as he had during the first five years of his career. He lay silent for a while (2006’s Avalanche is composed of songs from his 2004 Illinois sessions). We who heard ‘Majesty Snowbird’ performed live braced ourselves for something extraordinary. But we were made to wait. In 2007, Stevens showed his film The B.Q.E., which was accompanied by a live orchestra. Its soundtrack was released in 2009. By his own admission, Stevens had lost his faith in the form of ‘song’. Then we heard news of an album proper to be released in 2010, which was preceded, without warning, by the All Delighted People EP. We had heard the new sound and it was glorious. Two months later we entered into the Age of Adz. Both Greg and I knew from very early on that it was our shared favourite album of 2010. Then he fell silent again. We wondered where he could go from the satisfying chaos and vulnerability of Age of Adz. Finally, nearly five years later, we got our answer. Much has been, can and should be said and written of Carrie & Lowell. A masterpiece. A revelation. A portrait of serene torture. There’s a sense of despair and hopelessness that carries throughout Carrie & Lowell, but with it is a natural sense of hope and the affirmation of life. In his essay ‘The Experience of God and the Axiology of the Impossible’, American philosopher John Caputo posits:

Hope is only hope when one hopes against hope, only when the situation is hopeless. Hope has the full force of hope only when we have first been led to the point where it is impossible to hope – and then we hope against hope, even as faith is faith in the face of the incredible. Hope is only hope when all I can do is to try to keep hope alive even though there is no hope. There is no hope, I know that and I am convinced of that, but I still hope.

In this way, I must extend my gratitude: Thank you, Sufjan, for giving us hope.

Honourable Mentions

  • Escape from Evil  Lower Dens
  • Natalie Prass  Natalie Prass
  • Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit  Courtney Barnett
  • New Bermuda  Deafheaven
  • Return to the Moon  EL VY
  • The Agent Intellect  Protomartyr
  • Have You in My Wilderness  Julia Holter

Greg’s Top 10 Albums of 2015

It was lovely to find a few more albums than last year that I knew would be on this list as soon as I heard them—and I’m gratified that my and Elijah’s lists converged more this year than some. I always find myself having to catch up with some of his more esoteric choices and I hope that I am able to help any of our dear readers catch a scent of some new sonic pleasures as well. Bon appétit (wow, a muddle of metaphors if there ever was one)!

10. Times Infinity Vol. One  The Dears — I do love this Canadian indie band quite a bit, even though they don’t always live up to their potential. This album feels a bit slight (supposedly there is a Vol. Two forthcoming), but honestly it’s nice to see a band not fill out an album with padding of middling material or playing a song to death with endlessly-repeated choruses at the end of a song (ok, The Dears are sometimes guilty of this). They ask in their almost funky lead single, ‘I Used to Wait for the Heavens to Fall‘:  ‘Whose side are you on?’  I am on your side, Dears.

9. Return to the Moon  EL VY — Part of me wanted to love this album (more Matt Berninger from The National!), part of me wanted to ignore it (don’t be unfaithful to your bandmates with some poppy, multi-instrumentalist from Oregon!). I gave it a number of focused listens & I just can’t help but get taken in by it–his lyrics, his low melodic rumblings, they are just too brilliant to neglect & the arrangements have grown on me (I wasn’t a huge fan of the title cut at first, but it’s all really quite good), even the ‘haunted house’ feel of ‘Silent Ivy Hotel‘ (love the faux-Elvira/Beetlejuice video…such a great sense of humor!!).

8. Sprinter  Torres — Her 2013 self-titled album would have come close to making my list that year if I’d heard it in time (that was such an AMAZING year of music!!), this album is a wholly other turn. When I heard it (on Amazon Prime Music no less), I immediately thought of the early PJ Harvey (it turns out she has a member of Harvey’s old band playing & producing!) and even the primal punk power of the young Sinead O’Connor. Supposedly, the album is about her rejection of Christian faith/upbringing (I need to listen more carefully to the lyrics to sort it all out), but she is IN CONTROL HERE—tight arrangements, in-your-face snarls & howls, layers of harmony on top of crunchy guitars…check out ‘Sprinter.’

brother

7. Brother  The Brilliance — This is a Christian group and we use a number of their songs in worship services at my church, so it may seem strange a bit odd here. But honestly, this band, more than any other Christian worship group ever, makes it eminently beautiful at every level—haunting melodies on cello & piano laid down beneath a voice filled with tenderness and longing (there’s a good deal of the spare instrumentation reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens here, so that’s probably part of my affection…though the Age of Adz-y synth bleep-bloops on ‘Love Remains’ is a bit much). Exhibit A: ‘Does Your Heart Break?‘ (note the Elliott Smith shout-out near the end of the song—which is only instrumental on the YouTube video link there, but they actually sing ‘everything means nothing to me’ on the album). The lyrics are poignant &   filled with questions of God such as ‘Are you watching as your children die?’ (some of which I take theological issue with, but still think are legitimate forms of lamenting confusion). So many amazing songs here—their whole catalog is filled with this level of quality.

6. Depression Cherry  Beach House — Just listen to it. The opening Phillip Glass by way of Mazzy Star track is only the beginning. There’s part of me that realizes that this is just a guy & girl in a studio with a drum machine & a bunch of keyboards & some guitars, but it comes out so transcendent, so ethereal…it’s musical alchemy. Don’t know what else to say. (I would allow you to skip the second song with its shoegazy sort of distorted acoustic guitar, but that would be the one exception).

5. Dear Wormwood  The Oh Hellos — Discovered this band through a free download of their album Through the Deep, Dark Valley on NoiseTrade (which sadly usually has more misses than hits for me) a couple years back and felt like I’d been given a bag of gold. I ordered this album sight unseen (and I suppose more importantly, sound unheard) and here it is, right at the top. It’s an immediate masterpiece, not an album of songs per se, but an ALBUM’s album. You should listen to the whole thing to understand it. I found myself choking up on the title track—’I know who I am know and all that you made of me / I know who you are now, and I name you my enemy’—the triumph of pursuing the good over giving in to the evil that can worm its way into our lives.

4. Bashed Out  This Is the Kit — Matt Berninger wasn’t the only one playing around outside of The National this year. The Dessner bros are producing & playing on this album. This album came out of nowhere for me. I saw somewhere that Elbow’s Guy Garvey had recommended this album, so I downloaded it. Then fell in love with this album. It is like being inside the head of someone who is so true and kind and lovely; such a captivating vocalist, with layers of sounds and lovely tunes surrounding it. This is an intuitive recommendation—my affection for this album may translate for you. No worries. I’m just so glad I found this band. A good entry point might be ‘Silver John,’ but it’s not really representative of the whole album.

björk_vulnicura

3. Vulnicura  Björk — While I followed Björk pretty faithfully through the Sugar Cubes and early solo years, her albums got a bit too out there for me (conventional sort that I am). But this, while wildly experimental at times, is undoubtedly a work of genius. It’s a cathartically painful account of a relational break-up, but it is a masterpiece of exploring the loss with perfectly apt musical accompaniment & vocalization. I feel so terrible for her, but as often happens, hard lives make great art. You have to make the time to listen to the whole album in one sitting—it’s profound, heartbreaking, and epic.

2. Currents Tame Impala — Another break-up album, but this time from the one who left (I think!) rather than the one who was left (a la Björk). I secretly think that the one-man band that is Kevin Parker challenged himself to take a bunch of non-cool musical materials (the most cheesy 80’s synth sounds conceivable—think Spandau Ballet, handclaps, falsettos) and make the most awesome album imaginable. Beggaring belief, he succeeded. A few little filler tracks aside, this is a record of the highest level of song-writing ability and musicianship possible.

1. Carrie & Lowell  Sufjan Stevens — So much has been said and written about this album. I don’t think I can even describe what this album means to me. Loss, longing, despair, regret captured by God’s own bard.

Honourable Mentions

  • Brace the Wave  Lou Barlow (I love Lou and was so delighted to see him live this year, but this album didn’t measure up to his previous solo work for me)
  • I Love You, Honeybear  Father John Misty (it’s quite a good album, I’m just so sick of his self-obsessed cynicism)
  • The Waterfall  My Morning Jacket (really good, I just didn’t listen to it enough to evaluate)
  • Love Songs for Robots  Patrick Watson (always worth listening to)
  • Star Wars  Wilco (I only started listening to this last week. It’s REALLY good. Too late to include, but may have made the cut)

Best Albums of 2014

Best Albums of 2014

Oh, hi, remember us?  Never fear, it’s that time of year again!  The time to buy into consumerism, to plunge ourselves into debt for the sake of acquiring all the latest things in order to prove to our loved ones that they really are worth that object made by underpaid underagers on the other side of the world.  But we need not be cynical!  During this festive time, when the nights are still drawing in, when we wrap up warm and share in Christmas carols, hugs and kisses, mulled wine and mince pies, we at Lost in the Cloud are very pleased to share with our favourite albums in order to see us all through the winter.  And, in typical LITC fashion, not a minute too soon.  So do read, listen and enjoy in full frequency stereophonic sound!

Love,
Greg & Elijah

Elijah’s Top 10 Albums of 2014

WYR0514tubejktnoguidlines10. Sunbathing Animal Parquet Courts — 2014 has been a good year for the revival of garage and punk rock.  Parquet Courts’ Sunbathing Animal is just one of many great fruits of this harvest.  With a barrage of home-made-feeling stripped down rock tunes, Sunbathing Animal explores the constant tension between, what vocalist/guitarist Andrew Savage describes as ‘a duality between freedom and captivity; that balance between the freedom that you find in being in a band—or just being a creative person in the world, that’s trying to leave their mark—and then the captivity that goes along with the constraints that you come up against … and a lot of the time having it fail.’  Like that poor diced up tiger on the album cover, Parquet Courts examine that tension in glorious fashion, with persistent drumbeats and sloppy guitars from a bygone era, rediscovered and executed with a shrewdness and confidence so lacking in this present age.  And with track durations ranging from one minute to seven (each very satisfying in length) Parquet Courts further demonstrate that they are well aware of what they’re doing.

Crunch9. Crunch Eureka California — Also among the great garage and punk rock records released this year, Eureka California’s Crunch distinguishes itself with a shelling of persistently energetic, witty and hook-laden gems.  As singer/guitarist Jake Ward confesses in the track of the same name, ‘You put your hand to the pencil and the pencil to the pad, never has anything so sharp ended up so dull and bland … because art is hard‘, good art is indeed difficult.  But I’m pleased to report that Crunch is anything but dull and bland.  Sadly, it seems many reviewers, to their own loss, have largely overlooked this record.  Here at Lost in the Cloud, we [and by ‘we’ I mean ‘I, Elijah’] encourage you not to let this one pass you by as it has so many others!

Loom8. Loom Fear of Men — As said by that great modern sage Tila Tequila, ‘I think every person has their own identity and beauty.  Everyone being different is what is really beautiful.  If we were all the same, it would be boring.’  I think there’s a real kernel of wisdom in that.  I once heard a university professor express gratitude for his differences from his partner because, ‘If we were both the same person, there’d be no need for the other — I might as well kill myself.’  A wee bit harsh, but the point I am making is that although Greg and I are kindred spirits in so many ways (such as our love for Sufjan Stevens, Elliott Smith and Irn-Bru), our differences make us a better platonic pairing in many ways.  Take Fear of Men’s Loom, for instance.  I don’t intend to speak for Greg, from what I’ve gathered, Loom was a ‘like’ not ‘love’ album for him.  Me, on the other hand — as you can see, it’s nestled right here between nine and seven.  Their first full-length release, Loom is a great foray into dream pop/indie rock.  Jess Weiss’ vulnerable vocals, teamed with Daniel Falvey’s watery, guitar-driven soundscapes wash over the listener like waves (and there are many aquatic references on Loom).  It’s a beautiful piece of work and, at the very least, a beautiful debut.

Some Blue Morning7. Some Blue Morning Adrian Crowley — Maltese-born Irish singer-songwriter Adrian Crowley was described as ‘the best songwriter that no one’s heard of’ by Ryan Adams in 2005. I’m inclined to agree with Ryan.  Although he has been active for fifteen years, during which he has released six albums, I was only made aware of Crowley’s existence in before Some Blue Morning.  Crowley’s voice and style remind me of veterans like Leonard Cohen and Scott Walker and of more recent master Bill Callahan.  With great skill and precision, Some Blue Morning is produced and executed very conscientiously, and it’s no exaggeration to claim that there is a maturity to Crowley’s songwriting that lands him among such greats.

Too Bright6. Too Bright Perfume Genius — This record is most definitely what I would consider ‘a grower’.  Too Bright is singer-songwriter Mike Hadreas’ third release.  His first two, Learning (2010) and Put Your Back N 2 It (2012), eluded the major English-speaking charts, gaining momentum only in Belgium (and the latter in Ireland), for some reason.  But Too Bright has found its way into the US and UK charts, riding on the success of the lead single ‘Queen’.  Upon my first listen to ‘Queen’ I was impressed with the Perfume Genius himself, Mike Hadreas’ raw lyrics coupled with his cutting delivery.  The rest of the album requires more patience, but the payoff is tenfold.  There’s a primal aggression paired with serene meekness, which only grows more satisfying with each listen.  Throughout the whole of Too Bright, one can hear Hadreas push himself to his limits, relying more upon vocal tone than words (of which there are relatively few).

Nobody Wants to be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave5. Nobody Wants to Be Here & Nobody Wants to Leave The Twilight Sad — I usually ignore Pitchfork, but I was curious to see if any critics were loving Nobody Wants to Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave (for the sake of brevity, referred to as Nobody from here on out) as much as I have been.  So I went and read Ian Cohen’s scathing review.  He opens with these words:

‘Mainstream success has mostly eluded the Twilight Sad, which is somewhat disappointing and even more surprising—their compatriots We Were Promised Jetpacks and Frightened Rabbit still fill rooms in the States despite being only slightly more ‘pop,’ proof that a certain kind of Scottish miserablism will always play well overseas, especially when delivered with a whiskeyed brogue.  Consequently, when you’re the most successful and long-running band with the word ‘sad’ in its name, the obvious question is, at what point does such a staunch commitment to misery become, well, kinda miserable?  In the case of the Twilight Sad, it takes about a decade, as everything from the title of Nobody Wants to Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave to its uncertain sonic direction tells of a band feeling trapped within their own reputation.’

‘Scottish miserablism’ and ‘whiskeyed brogue’?  Sounds like Mr Cohen is just being ‘patronising’ and ‘lazy’.  He goes on to contrast Nobody with each of The Twilight Sad’s previous three albums and comes to the conclusion that Nobody lacks ‘palplable passion’.  I assume he means ‘palpable’, but who hasn’t made typrografrical errors?  Aside from his patronising tone and his minor slip of the keys, I’m left wondering if Mr Cohen and I have actually been listening to the same record.  On the whole, I consider this record to be their strongest and most complete to date.  I’ll grant Ian Cohen the fact that Nobody isn’t always as loud or aggressive as The Twilight Sad’s previous releases, but there’s no lack of conviction to be found.  The music is more compelling and listenable than ever (though I’ll admit that, unfortunately, James Graham’s vocals on the sixth track of the album, ‘In Nowheres’ remind me of Eddie Vedder), warranting a stop in my top five albums of the year.

St Vincent4. St Vincent St Vincent — One of my greatest anxieties in my attempt to be taken seriously as a student of pop music comes when I hear a record from a familiar and belovéd artist; an artist who has, in past, been part of my ‘Top 10 Albums’ rankings.  It’s happened plenty of times in recent history—with great artists like Arcade Fire, Beach House, Deerhunter/Atlas Sound, Frightened Rabbit, Girls, Grizzly Bear/Department of Eagles, The National, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Tame Impala and Youth Lagoon, to name quite a few—and I fear that it makes me a lazy pupil.  Have I just convinced you that I’m a hack?  Well, let this year’s list convince you that I do resist the temptation as best I can.  It is my intention to present you with ten albums that I believe truly are the best from the year.  Two of my favourite contemporary artists (Owl John [Scott Hutcheson, singer of Frightened Rabbit] and Beck) are honourable mentions, whilst others (like My Brightest Diamond, The War on Drugs and We Were Promised Jetpacks) didn’t even make the honourable cut.  But the one repeat artist I couldn’t resist was Annie Clark.  St Vincent’s newest record demonstrates more than Clark’s typical-yet-excellent craft.  It gives us something novel, something more adventurous as a whole.  It depends yet more heavily on digital programming than any of Clark’s previous records and doesn’t give the impression of a one trick pony that even 2011’s masterpiece, Strange Mercy does at times.  It’s probably helped that Clark has been exploring broader avenues of musical expression (see Love This Giant).  She courts minor controversy with the prudes (with at least one explicit reference to masturbation[!]) and with the devout (with the expression of a preference for the love of another over Jesus), but she’s got this devout prude convinced that St Vincent is an excellent cut.

Burn Your Fire for No Witness3. Burn Your Fire for No Witness Angel Olsen — Oscillating wildly between her country and rock sentiments, Angel Olsen delivers with her latest album.  I was first drawn in by the garage-infused ballads, ‘Forgiven/Forgotten’, ‘High & Wild’ and ‘Stars’, but that is not all that this record has to offer.  Burn Your Fire for No Witness is largely more energetic than her previous effort (2012’s Half Way Home), whilst the latter third of the record demands more of the listener.  But make no mistake, great rewards are to be reaped upon repeated listenings.  With these dramatic swings from more aggressive tracks to more spacious, reflective and tranquil ones, Olsen draws the listener into an intimate experience and makes us thirsty for the next note, the next word.  Her vocal tones are mesmerising and her pace tells the listener that she is in no hurry — but we don’t complain because we have no good reason to do so.

pom pom2. pom pom Ariel Pink — I never expected to be made a believer in Ariel Pink. The first record of his (with the addition of his band, The Haunted Grafitti) I ever heard was 2007’s Scared Famous, which never quite convinced me he was as good as ‘everyone’ was saying.  Then he seemed to disappear for a few years, proving, in my own mind, that my suspicions were true.  When he released his next two records, Before Today (2010) and Mature Themes (2012), I didn’t pay them any attention.  But for some reason I felt as if I needed to give Mr Pink a fresh listen.  I must admit that when I first sampled pom pom (as is now my custom prior to any purchase in this digital age) my expectations were quite low.  I expected it to be too avant-garde for its own or anyone else’s good.  But upon that first listen there was something that made me think twice about pom pom.  Maybe it was actually worth buying after all.  pom pom is a pop odyssey, deriving low-fi influence from 1980s indie and new wave, combining these sensibilities with a heavily Kim Fowley-influenced 1960s feel, all in a crafty and novel way.  It descends into adolescent sex-scapades and a wee bit of nonsense in its third quarter with ‘Sexual Athletics’, ‘Jell-o’ and ‘Black Ballerina’, which rubbed me the wrong way at first (not least due to my abstinence from gelatine), but the quality and strength of Pink’s songwriting prevails.  The skilful eclecticism of pom pom has something for everyone and has made me a believer in Ariel Pink.

Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son1. Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son Damien Jurado — I’ve always appreciated Damien Jurado’s determination and his commitment to doing things his own way, but if I’m honest, I’ve resisted many of his records for two silly and interelated reasons.  The first reason is the fact that Jurado’s music is often littered with religious under and overtones.  (As the title of this record reveals, Jurado hasn’t pruned away his biblical references for this record.)  It’s not that religious artists are inevitably bad, but the remarkability of artists like Sufjan Stevens and Daniel Smith—artists who, however overtly religious their music may be, due to their innovation could be better classified as ‘artists who happen to be Christians’ as opposed to ‘Christian artists’ with all of the derivative trappings of American Evangelical culture—is hard to come by.  And whilst I don’t think that Jurado has ever been as explicit as any ‘Christian artist’ on the Billboard ‘Christian Albums’ chart (it offends me that such a category even exists!), I’ve resisted any great investment in his music because of what I perceived to be its overall unremarkability.  That being said, his recent partnership with producer Richard Swift (once keyboardist for Starflyer 59 and current member of The Shins) has proven to be a great success.  Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son is Jurado’s third record with Swift and his 11th overall, and despite his lack of commercial success, this perpetual underdog has finally captured this Loser in the Cloud’s proverbial heart.  In a video published prior to the release of the album, Jurado stated, ‘This new record is sort of a sequel to [the 2012 album] Maraqopa … and it is about a guy who disappears on a search, if you will, for himself and never goes home.’  With a stunning spectrum of aural depth and stylistic breadth, Jurado tells an intricately [scientifically] fictitious story with which I’m still learning to cope after innumerable listens — and it’s wonderful!

Honourable Mentions

  • Rooms with Walls and Windows Julie Byrne
  • Salad Days Mac Demarco
  • Rave Tapes Mogwai
  • Everyday Robots Damon Albarn
  • Owl John Owl John
  • Piano Ombre Fránçois And The Atlas Mountains
  • La Isla Bonita Deerhoof
  • Morning Phase Beck
  • Are We There Sharon Van Etten
  • Singles Future Islands

Greg’s Top 10 Albums of 2014

To my listening ears, 2014 has not been a great year in music–a good year, sure. But great? Hardly. 2013–now THERE was a year! So many of those albums have STILL been the ones I’ve turned to this year when I wanted to hear something amazing, deep, moving, clever, heartfelt, and beautiful. My last year’s top 10 albums included masterpieces from Neko Case, Frightened Rabbit, The National, The Leisure Society, and Laura Marling, which I believe will hold up for eons. Now, granted, I have only encountered ONE of the albums on Elijah’s list (which is unusual & a bit sad), so I should hold my tongue until I’ve heard all that he has put on the sonic table, but for my part, it’s been a rather impoverished year of the kind of music I am drawn to (melodic, melancholic, lyrically astute without becoming too rarefied, mid-fi to lo-fi production, sincere, organic, etc.). Still there were enough examples to put a list of 10 albums together, and apart from #10, #4, and #2, all of these albums have a kind of REAL sound where you can really tell that people were sitting in a room playing a particular instrument to make the sounds that you are hearing, and that they had refined that sound as a craft, requiring the discipline to really hear everything that the others in the group were doing, and that they had achieved a mastery in their particular genre. Enjoy!

10. Songs of Innocence  U2 — Elijah, forgive me, but here it is.  I suppose this will be a sure sign of having moved permanently into middle-agedom and sentimentality, but I truly enjoyed this album, particularly the latter half.  ‘Raised by Wolves’ married a lilting poignancy with a razor sharp intensity to produce a sound I haven’t heard from U2 in many years.  Song after song, from the poppy production of early tracks (esp. ‘Every Breaking Wave’) to the darkly disconcerting, yet hauntingly lovely closers ‘Sleep Like a Baby Tonight’ and ‘The Troubles,’ I found it quite listenable, and indeed I did listen to it again and again, which is more than I can say about any album of theirs in the last 15 years, or many other albums that came out this year.

9. Phox  Phox — This is a good album from a potentially GREAT band.  All the pieces are there.  Gorgeously idiosyncratic lead vocals of thick velvet & smoke with mysterious lyrics that suggest a wide narrative berth of times and places; brilliantly arranged dynamics with a variety of classical and folk instrumentation (I’m a sucker for a tasteful clarinet line); a vast, yet incredibly tight band that really seems to love playing together; and from what I’ve discerned from a live session, an amazing stage presence and performance.  I’m anticipating great things from these phoxy kids!

8. Are We There  Sharon Van Etten — There is a beautiful languour in her songwriting and voice that evinces a sense of longing and melancholy so deep it’s like someone avoiding eye contact with an ex-lover while they wade in a slow moving river at dusk under a purple sky, and then, suddenly, one finds the will to meet the other’s gaze and stares intensely with a flush of deep sincerity, painful uncertainty, and yet raw, emotional power.  Something like that.  If you want to feel that ‘that,’ listen to ‘Afraid of Nothing,’ ‘Your Love is Killing Me,’ and ‘Break Me.’

7. My Favourite Faded Fantasy  Damien Rice — When I heard this record was coming out, I was surprised that Rice was even still at it musically.  His break through album O had been a mainstay of my mid-2000’s playlists, but I only begrudgingly picked up his second album through some Russian website at $.05 a song and still felt like I’d been jipped.  So when my friend Wade said this LP might be his favourite album of the year, I was a bit incredulous.  Then I listened to it and knew he was onto something. Rice’s lyrics can be cliched (i.e. the idea not fitting in someone’s box) and bizarrely overwrought (exhibit A: ‘I just came across a manger / Out among the danger / Somewhere in a stranger’s eye’ which is utterly ridiculous), but he knows how to craft and perform a song, this one does.  The music rolls along and suddenly slows, like held breath; it’s spare and then suddenly full, an empty stage becoming a filled hall; his voice is rich then falling apart, with emotion that feels unmistakably real.  This Irish lad is back, in my book.

6. The Take Off and Landing of Everything  Elbow — These fellows have mastered the art of lying a spare, haunting arrangement beneath the weathered sagacity of Guy Garvey’s Manchester melodic tales recounting the joy of simple lives, getting older, looking for some kind of meaning great or small. It’s best to not pick songs off this album — just allow it all to wash over you as a whole.

5. Upside Down Mountain  Conor Oberst — I was so deeply disappointed after Oberst’s last outing, the ill-begotten final Bright Eyes album, that I had little hope that he’d return to the powerful lyrical storytelling and hook-filled songwriting I’d loved for so many years.  But this album has it in spades.  I was actually startled by how much I liked song after song on this record–while some are stronger than others, all are quite good.  Such a relief to have the kid genius back in fighting shape!

4. Stay Gold  First Aid Kit — This was another album that I didn’t want to like.  The lead song ‘Silver Lining’ was obviously hooky and rich in harmonies, but it initially felt like some kind of schtick, as if these Swedish teenager sisters were playing at creating some throwback, middle American folk-pop (whilst cramming a bunch of syllables into a kind of talk-singing that I detest) as an experiment in musical slumming.  But oh my gosh as I kept listening (and there was that clarinet line again!), I totally fell for these young women and their tragic stories sung so beautifully, having choruses that pull one into a vortex of loveliness.  (Sadly, our American version of the harmonizing, tragic songwriting teenage sister band, Lily & Madeleine, had only a pretty mediocre LP come out this year after a strong start with an EP & album last year.  Take your time ladies, there’s no rush!)

3. Familiars  The Antlers — Imagine if a resurrected Jeff Buckley decided to become some kind of ass-kicking torch singer and got a really tight band together to lay down solid grooves that stealthily built up (with the help of a horn section) passionate suffering into crescendos like a tidal waves beneath the sound of gorgeous melodic whispers and soaring laments.  Just listen to ‘Palace,’ ‘Hotel,’ or ‘Parade.’  NSFW language BTW.

2. Brill Bruisers  The New Pornographers — I’m pretty much in love with Neko Case’s voice, so I was halfway there with this album as soon as I heard her tiger’s growl.  In the past, I’ve loved the songs that she sung or A.C. Newman wrote/performed & that remained true for this album (title track, ‘Champions of Red Wine,’ ‘Marching Orders,’ ‘Another Drug Deal of the Heart,’ and ‘Wide Eyes’); I have no idea what they are ever singing about, but it is emotionally impressionistic enough that I know when to chuckle or sigh (for example, from ‘Wide Eyes’: ‘Overlooking the canyon / Right from where I’m standing / I swear I can see my former glory still burning / It had every intent of returning // There’s years to planning and landing / To prepare for jumping the canyon / It’s not the death-defying, or cheering / It’s the thrill of clearing, barely clearing’).  However, on this record, I found myself actually enjoying the cuts from the other principle songwriter (Dan Bejar of Destroyer) — which then makes this an all-around delight.  When tunes can become polished to this level of perfection, one cannot begrudge the super-group stacking of the deck!

1. Heart Murmurs  Jeremy Messersmith — This is the one, undeniable masterpiece on this list.  And to my horror, it looks like it’s going largely unrecognized on various Best Albums of the Year lists. I was introduced to the songsmithery of Messersmith by officemates who played his 2010 album The Reluctant Graveyard on repeat to the point that it should have been glass shards in my ears, and yet I found myself unendingly pleased each time I heard the familiar opening notes.  (You may also recognize him from his brilliant Star Wars homage song & video ‘Tatooine.’)  So of course I was excited when this album came out, but I couldn’t believe how deeply I came to love it the more and more I listened to song after song about relational heartache (which should be the most tired of lyrical subject matter, but isn’t here).  His voice is the apotheosis of impeccably smooth tone.  The arrangements are the finest lot of indie pop, skipping around in familiar genres (chamber pop, middle-period Beatles, Radiohead-esque alternative rock, etc.) with genius ease.  The lyrics are clever, full of warmth and compassion for named folks like Steve and Heidi, earnest, hopeful, sweetly profane, and unimprovable.  He was one of Time Magazine’s 14 Artists to Watch in 2014… but I don’t think most of the world was looking carefully enough.  Please don’t miss him too.

Honourable Mentions

  • Bones + Longing  Gemma Hayes (strong start, with guest guitar wall of sound from My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields, but didn’t live up to it in the end)
  • In Roses  Gem Club (amazing chamber pop album)
  • Seeds  TV on the Radio (mixed bag of some brilliance in back-to-back ‘Love Stained’ and ‘Ride’ but otherwise I couldn’t see what they were broadcasting)
  • Loose Ends  Francisco the Man! — I hate to be contentious, Francisco, but I believe that Portugal was actually ‘the Man’ long before you came around. I couldn’t, in good conscience, put an album with this lyric on my top 10 albums list: ‘But every time that I get high / I close my eyes and I ask “Why?” / And then the world, she disappears / And I look for another beer.’  But the MUSIC on this album is often so propulsive and tuneful and thickly layered, feeling like a drive on the open road on a stormy day (for example, ‘You & I,’ ‘Loaded,’ and ‘I Am Not’).  Reminds me of a more distorted instrumentation of Telekenisis + the vocals of The Helio Sequence.

Dishonourable Mentions

  • I was so sadly bored by Morrissey’s new album; Beck’s LP had one genius cut ‘Wave’ but otherwise felt like an attempt to cash in on a Sea Change reincarnation; and I was absolutely left cold by Lana Del Rey’s sophomore record.  (I should have listened to Thom Yorke’s release a BitTorrent more, but it felt like bleeps and bloops for the most part.  We’ll see if it’s a grower like his The Eraser was for me.)

Six Thoughts, Post-Referendum

Several short thoughts, nothing more. Due to lack of sleep and general exhaustion, this won’t be my finest bit of writing ever, but here goes…

1. MANY VOTES WERE FRAUDULENT – Don’t worry, this isn’t what it seems to be. I’ve not got some conspiracy theory floating around in my head about mass instances of voter fraud. I suppose I mean ‘misguided’, but that term didn’t seem strong enough.

I would like to look at the simple language of the Referendum ballot: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ In all honesty, I think both sides of the debate have obscured the question, whether intentionally or unintentionally. I think when most people look at that question they aren’t reading ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ at all. It could be any number of things:

‘Should we sack the Tories?’
‘Should Alex Salmond and the SNP run Scotland?’
‘Should Scotland be an independent country on 19 September 2014?’
‘Do you want to lose your pension?’
‘Do you want to lose Coronation Street?’
‘Do you appreciate the monarchy?’
et cetera

The heart-breaking thing is that whilst some of those suggestions are legitimate or even debatable knock-on effects of union or independence, none of them are really an answer to the bigger question and the first two (and variations of them) are particularly deceiving as they involve conflating party politics and national sovereignty. I think that the Better Together folk were wise in having a Labour politician lead them (although they couldn’t find someone who sounded more Scottish than Alistair Darling?), indicating a cross-party effort to maintain the Union. Although Alex Salmond is an incredibly talented politician, he is also the First Minister and the leader of the SNP. Granted, the Referendum is a direct by-product of the SNP’s election to Scottish Parliament in 2011, but it could’ve been more effective to see less divisive faces leading the Yes campaign.

This all adds up to a wee bit of confusion when it comes to answering the question, ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ In defence of the Yes campaign, I would argue that it is likely that many people were not thinking about the future of Scotland with a fully devolved and independent Scottish Parliament made up of all Scottish political persuasions. We wouldn’t need to ship our best and brightest to Westminster. They could stay here in Scotland where they have the opportunity to represent the interests of the people living in Scotland — because that would be the entire purpose of an independent Scottish Government. Instead, folk were thinking about a decade of Alex Salmond.

I also think a lot of folk have been using language to imply that had Scotland voted ‘Yes’ on 18 September, we would be an independent country on 19 September. Had we voted ‘Yes’, the new government would not have been established until 24 March 2016. This would allow a year and a half of consultation and negotiation; and to play into the previous point, a democratic vote for all eligible voters in Scotland. I’m seeing a lot of ‘still in the UK’-type language on social media this morning — no matter the outcome of yesterday’s Referendum, today we would still be in the UK.

2. SCOTLAND IS NOT THE SOCIALIST HAVEN SOME OF US HAVE BELIEVED IT TO BE — Results this morning indicate that areas of a higher working class and unemployed population came out overwhelmingly in favour of independence. In many of our minds (me included), we’ve harboured this delusion that the vast majority of Scots are like the working class folk in Glasgow and Dundee. But the reality is that Scotland is not as different from the rest of the United Kingdom as we thought. Of course, a Conservative politician in Scotland is most likely much further to the left than a Conservative politician in England. See Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives. She’s a woman and a lesbian at that — two qualities that might put some of the English Tory gentry up in arms. But overall, it’s only common sense to acknowledge that not all Scots are leftists and up until only a few decades ago, Scotland had a long spell of complicity in the electing of Unionist/Conservative Governments in Westminster.

3. THIS IS NOT A TORY VICTORY / THIS IS NOT AN SNP DEFEAT — One great frustration among many I have with the result of this Referendum is that many folk are seeing this as either a Tory victory of an SNP defeat. It is neither of those things. At most, it is a Better Together victory and a Yes campaign defeat. Make no mistake — this vote does not indicate Scotland’s approval of Westminster or the UK Government. Likewise, it does not indicate Scotland’s disapproval of Holyrood and the Scottish Government. Instead, a slim majority of Scottish voters decided that our best option at this point is not full independence. Not only that, but in the midst of their grief, the SNP and the Yes campaign should take some consolation in the fact that over the length of this campaign the support of Scottish independence is at a record high. It seems clear that the majority Scottish people want more power devolved to Scotland (a clarity that could have manifested itself in a result today had David Cameron not very sneakily traded a second, ‘devo-max’ Referendum question for allowing 16 and 17-year-olds to vote back in the Edinburgh Agreement).If Westminster politicians stick to their promises, we will be seeing further devolution in future.

As far as the future of the SNP goes, I believe that a large number of Scots think that the SNP has done well for the Scottish people, hence 2011’s election of a majority SNP Scottish Government in a parliament designed to avoid majority governments. The SNP isn’t going anywhere any time soon. If anything, a ‘Yes’ vote would’ve been the best way to ensure that the SNP would eventually dissolve.

4. AT A CERTAIN POINT LAST NIGHT, A ‘YES’ WOULD HAVE MEANT THE SAME THING AS A WESTMINSTER GOVERNMENT — As one might expect, the first results that came in early this morning were the smallest council areas. When a majority of councils had reported (most of them ‘No’ votes) it became clear that had the bigger councils voted ‘Yes’ overwhelmingly, this would create the same lopsided democracy as we find at Westminster. Sure, in this hypothetical situation where ‘Yes’ won as a result of only a handful of large council areas, in numbers the ‘Yes’ would have it. As is already felt by the smaller councils, particularly in the Western and Northern Islands, they would be governed by the will of places like Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee.  Folk have used this as an argument against independence, saying things like ‘Well, the Highlands and Islands have a different culture from the Lowlands, so we should have the opportunity to be independent countries too!’ I think that’s nonsense and you don’t need to think too hard in order to realise that the Western and Northern Islands would be more closely managed and find greater clout in a smaller, more local Scottish Parliament (as opposed to Westminster). But what I really want to express is that, should Scotland one day decide to be an independent country, I would hope that would be the will of the vast majority of Scots, with support from the further flung parts of our beautiful country.

5. THE UK IS BECOMING INCREASINGLY INHOSPITABLE TO THE OUTSIDER — A major part of why I supported a ‘Yes’ vote is because I am noticing a trend of hostility and inhospitality to outsiders in the United Kingdom. (Given the results of the last European Parliamentary election, some might even argue that this is a European trend.) As an Angeleño-Glaswegian, I have a particular interest in the rights of immigrants, although my native language, skin colour and accent put me at a great advantage among non-native residents of Scotland. The cancer that is British fascism and isolationism is spreading beyond the confines of the political fringes. Many BNP voters have been making their way to UKIP, a seemingly more politically viable party these days. I thought that political separation from the UK would enable Scotland to become more intimately associated with the rest of Europe (and the rest of the world). Unfortunately, no amount of devolution will allow for that in a United Kingdom. I suppose that is one of my biggest fears in the wake of the Referendum results — that Scotland would become yet more xenophobic. And here’s a wee reminder to those who think that the SNP’s brand of nationalism is the same as ethnic nationalism: the SNP has never stood for ethnic nationalism – that’s the job of the SDL.

6. WE CANNOT LOSE MOMENTUM — In the wake of this morning’s result, it would be easy to become discouraged or complacent. Those who supported ‘Yes’ might feel downtrodden and exhausted with nothing to show for it. This isn’t the result of a simple football match. This was bigger than any General Election. And now the opportunity seems lost. It might be difficult to face the day today.

Those who supported ‘No’ might feel as if their work here is done, dusting off their hands, accompanied by a large sigh of relief. After the overwhelming nature of this very long and divisive campaign, we might feel too tired to continue. But there is much work to be done. I believe that many ‘No’ voters are not entirely convinced about this current system in the UK. Perhaps they believe that the best way for change is to remain part of the UK and renew it from the inside out. I can appreciate that.

Today we find ourselves in the midst of a nation divided. But we are still Scotland and despite the fact that we are not the socialist haven many have envisaged, we have many shared ideals, ideals that are not represented by many of the folk at Westminster. We cannot give in. We cannot feel defeated and we cannot feel as if our task is finished. We must unite as Scotland with love for one another in order to press for the change we need. We must hold those who made promises accountable to those promises. We must fight for a fairer and more just society. We must fight against the special breaks given to large financial institutions. We must fight for the rights of the most vulnerable and marginalised in our society. We must fight to do our part to demonstrate care and respect for nature and the precious natural resources so exploited by UK. And if it be our united will, we must fight to rid the UK of our hypocritical and immoral nuclear arsenal.

These are just some of the things we value. Let’s write a longer to-do list together.

Hearts