learning love songs

est. 2008


January 2016


This is one of my favorite pop hits of the past 10 years covered by an artist, who,musically, has never received the highest of accolades but has cemented celebrity through other mediums. But credit where credit is due – Jared Leto crushes this performance of Rihanna’s “Stay” that I stumbled across on YouTube tonight.

From the moment Leto begins to sing, he promises a fierce performance. The first crack in his voice on “cold sweat hot headed believer,” sends shivers down my spine. For a cover, I love how dedicated this is to the original, strict and dramatic piano with subtle percessuion to highlight slow builds to a melodic climax. His voice in the final chorus, bellowing and screeching those long high notes, is nothing short of rock star status. Just when I was getting tired of spending bored afternoons and lonely evenings practicing the same old chords and songs, feeling like I can’t bring anything new or original to the performance with my barebones skills, there is some evidence that keeping true to the song, in its,message and sound and integrity, is worthwhile indeed.

“It’s not much of a life you’re living
It’s not just something you take, it’s given
Round and around, and around, and around we go
Oh now, tell me now,

Tell me now, 
Tell me now you know…

Not really sure how to feel about it
Something in the way you move
Makes me feel like I can’t live without you
It takes me all the way
I want you to stay.

Rihanna, Unapologetic


If ever a day almost reaches its inevitable end without my heart getting caught in my throat, or without remembering the beauty that is just being, may I always remind myself to go listen to some acoustic Ryan Adams, and everything will settle into where it ought to be.

This performance of “Desire” for Austin City Limits is tender and quiet, the version of Adams that I think I like second-best, after the slightly manic howling one. I ought to go back and listen to “Demolition,” it’s been quite some time and it never captivated in the ways “Heartbreaker,” “Easy Tiger” or the Cardinals records did, but I’m quite happy to indulge in this for now (I also love his to this performance preface as reported by Rolling Stone). I am such a sucker for this kind of song structure, the one that’s an endless, silky, melody repeated for each line, without any kind of interruption. It’s the kind of song you can write when you latch onto the perfect little sequence of three or five or seven notes that can be cycle through. Adams, who is equally adept at spinning a soul-shattering chorus, finds a stunning one here, and he softly lifts his voice to let it lilt away, letting the three-syllables of the title express so much more than he bothers to say.

“Two hearts fading, like a flower.
And all this waiting, for the power.
For some answer, to this fire.
Sinking slowly. The water’s higher.

With no secrets. No obsession.
This time I’m speeding with no direction.
Without a reason. What is this fire?
Burning slowly. My one and only.

You know me.
You don’t mind waiting.
You just can’t show me, but God I’m praying,
That you’ll find me, and that you’ll see me,

That you run and never tire.

Ryan Adams, Demolition


I started checking out some live Marianas Trench performances in preparation for their Feb. 6 concert in Pittsburgh, and I couldn’t be more excited. Those harmonies! Those high notes, that Josh Ramsay is able to scream out without missing the next beat. I couldn’t be more obsessed, or impressed.

This song crept up on me as a favorite from “Astoria,” but hearing it acoustic creates a new intimacy. The recorded version sounds like it ought to to head up a parade, with a baton-baring Ramsay as grand marshal, but the stripped-down setting reveals a little more self-reflection. I love re-hearing it this way, and I love this as an anthem of reclamation, the underlying theme of “Astoria” that becomes clearer the more you listen between the lines.

“God, it’s been so long wide awake that I feel like someone elseI miss the way that you saw me or maybe the way I saw myself
But, I came back to you broken and I’ve been away too long
I hear the words I’ve spoken and everything comes out wrong
Just can’t get this together, can’t get where I belong
Who do you love?

Well, I’ve been deep in this sleeplessness, I don’t know why
Just can’t get away from myself

When I get back on my feet, I’ll blow this open wide and carry me home in good health

Who do you love? Who do you love?

From fable to fumble, from stable to stumble, nevermore
I’ll say goodbye to my demons and all my break-evens, ever yours

I, I won’t come back to you broken, I won’t stay away too long
Even if words I’ve spoken seem to still come out wrong
I’ll get my shit back together, get right where I belong
Who do you love?

Well, I’ve been deep in this sleeplessness, I don’t know why
Just can’t get away from myself
When I get back on my feet,
I’ll blow this open wide and carry me home in good health
Who do you love? Who do you love?”
~Who Do You Love,
Marianas  Trench, Astoria


“Before I die, take me to the place where we wrote our names wrong, but they shared a space. Branches and leaves gathered between where you are right now and where I wanna be. Between earth and sky, we’ll build a fire so high they’ll turn all the lights out and all will sing: ‘I am alive, I deserve to be.’
~Rage Against The Dying of the Light, Harmlessness
The World is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die

I’ve been listening to Harmlessness daily for about a week now, and I can’t believe how much I messed up not getting around to sooner.

I didn’t listen to “Harmlessness” in full before making my AOTY list, and therefore excluded one of the most moving rock records of the year, right up there with Turnover. I’ve been familiar with The World Is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die for awhile, and caught them on their headlining tour with The Hotelier last year, and while I was impressed by their showing I found their sound a little too disorganized for my taste, too much space and dissonance, not enough hooks, not enough cohesion.

“Harmlessness,” though, is nothing but cohesive, as well as continuous and flowing and sad and poignant and beautiful.

There’s something so polished about this record, though it still clings to the free-flowing thoughts that made TWIABP such a strange, enigmatic act from their debut. I love how it delves into the most insecure of thoughts, how it embraces so many sounds and strings, how it is difficult to tell where one song ends and one begins, flowing into an hour of broadened sound.

The startlingly quiet and warm intro track drew me in immediately, and the mysterious narrative of “January 10th, 2014” kept me engaged, as much as the rhythmic, cyclical melodies did. So much of this is poetry, the divulge-it-all and capture-the-moment kind. Later on, the last 55 seconds of “Haircuts for Everybody” sounds like what it feels like to cry, and when I heard that, that was when I knew I’d be playing this record over and over again, that I would not, could not, forget about it.

With so many bands, the sophomore album is a bit of a failure because it tries to recapture the lightening in a bottle that happened the first time. I wonder if the musicians of TWIABP ever had that moment of anxiety about that, or if they were confident the bolt struck them at the right time.

Change your life. Please, change your life.   Change my life. Please, change my life. 
We spent the last twenty-three minutes hallucinating over the phone.  I kept both my hands still while we saw the same building explode. Wreck this thing. Please, take it off the ground.”
~Haircuts for Everybody, Harmlessness
 The World is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die 


The year begins with a healthy dose of electropop, courtesy of Halsey. I didn’t get into her record “Badlands” until it kept cropping up on AOTY and 2015 wrap-up lists her and there, and I’d heard “New Americana” enough to be intrigued by her style. I wound up listening to this record at least once a day this week, hooked on its hooks, and getting into the dark, moody vibe that’s bound to take over radio playlists in 2016. I know I “shouldn’t” like it. But it’s edgy enough and too fun to turn off. She’s got a real style, one that is modern and current and cool.

I dig the overall place these songs are coming from, overproduced and underdeveloped as they are. Between the likes of Halsey, Lorde and Alessia Cara, there’s this growing cadre of female pop singers who write these really cutting, wry songs, ones about ditching the trendy scene and embracing weirdness. They’re cherishing introspection and originality over boy-chasing and booty-shaking. I’m into it, no doubt not as much as I would be if this was the narrative when I was in high school. But I’m glad that today’s high school girls get to hear these messages in mainstream music scene from the flavor-of-the-month pop stars, who are making it the norm to reject what you’re sold and oppose patriarchy, an attitude that’s for far too long been considered anti-establishment when equality ought to be the message from the top down.

“I sold my soul to a three-piece
And he told me I was holy

He’s got me down on both knees
But it’s the devil that’s trying to

Hold me down, hold me down
Sneaking out the back door,
Make no sound
Knock me out, knock me out
Saying that ‘I want more, this is what I live for.’

~Hold Me Down
Halsey, Badlands


It’s that time of year again.

The beginning. Which also means the end.

I’m particularly at ease as I sit down to write this list this year. It’s the kind of thing that’s an annual source of self-inflicted stress. While the AOTY list is a list that anyone who fancies themselves any kind of music “expert” or “critic” must be able to accomplish, I dread the work that it requires to reflect, write, compile. This year, though, it wasn’t hard to find a free moment and begin typing. I knew most of this in my head, I had considered it several weeks before when I knew January was creeping closer. I kept a running Post-It list and refreshed my ears with a Spotify playlist. And I’m excited to put it out there, all this music that has meant so much to me.

2015, perhaps more than any other year in my adulthood, carried more emotional trials than I could have anticipated. I dealt with heartbreaks I could not predict. I faced fears I had been running from since I was an adolescent. I let people in. I let go. I ran farther, wrote faster and kissed harder than ever before. I gave up bad habits and picked up better ones, and I picked myself off the floor. I found surrender, I found self-love, I found the freedom and lightness a human can attain when you break your mind out of the fences of expectation, and now it is 2016, and I find myself still fighting for all of this, but with degrees of anticipation and confidence and the good kind of nerves, and I am encouraged. Most people reading this do not know most things about me; most people do not know most things about anyone, least of all strangers on the Internet, but if you are reading these words right now you can probably gather that that my lifeline (as it is maybe for you too) through all of this in life is music.

10) If I Should Go Before You – City and Colour

A late-year release that continues to captivate me, I didn’t fully realize the brilliance of these songs until I had the chance to hear them live. And then I heard what I should’ve the first time – sweeping, elegant rock songs, with a timeless, bluesy feel, and Dallas Green’s sorrowful interpretations of life and love. From the opening bars of the dark, groovy “Woman,” you can tell this a record that uses the best of ingredients in the rock band pantry – heavy rhythm section, masterful solos, top notch vocals and hook-filled choruses. But mostly what I love about this record is how the sentimentality still steals the show.

Bound for trouble from the start
I’ve been walking through this old world in the dark
All along right by my side
There you were shining, my ray of light 

~Lover Come Back

9) Permanence – No Devotion

When the day started to drag, when the week started to feel dull, this was the record to play to pick it up again. An indie favorite among a certain post-emo scene, the kind who might still care who Geoff Rickly is, the No Devotion record encapsulates a sound that’s both reminiscent of a past era and somehow still trendy, walking one of my favorite lines. I love how synth-pop permeates the guitar parts, how new wave that sound is, matched with dark chords and stirring harmonies at the high-end of Rickly’s vocal range. This record surprised me by how much I liked it, how fun it was to listen to, and also how unseen it was given its overall depth compared to acts in the same kind of genre. 

Ten thousand summers
Cannot replace what we lost when you went away
Ten thousand summers
In the grass
And though it’s getting dark
Remember this will pass

~10,000 Summers

8)Carrie and Lowell – Sufjan Stevens

So many Sufjan fans fell by the wayside when his grand plans for a 50-album, 50-state spree stopped after two, myself included, as “The Age of Ads” and his BQE tribute didn’t seem to have the same heart. But Stevens’ musical brilliance, and poetic truths, shone through this year in the most surprisingly stunning ballad collection, a heartfelt, intimate tribute the love and loss and pain and quiet, awkward, awesome moments that make up family. It’s just too beautiful. When I listen to this record, I feel like it’s OK to be curious and shy and passionate about the ones you love.

Do I care if I survive this, bury the dead where they’re found
In a veil of great surprises; hold to my head till I drown
Should I tear my eyes out now, before I see too much?
Should I tear my arms out now, I wanna feel your touch

~The Only Thing
7) Run Wild – Lydia

Another one that really surprised me by how much I wound up listening to it. Lydia was a band I got into purely by Pandora association, despite knowing they lurked somewhere in the mid-aughts emo scene I’m so fond of. Choosing to get into them shortly before this release was somewhat serendipitous but also somewhat misleading – the Lydia that existed 10 years ago isn’t the one that put out this radio-friendly, poptastic, shimmering party serenade. But I love it, oh how I love it, from the stammering chorus of “Follow You Down” to the wide-eyed dance rhythms of “Late Nights.” Something about this record set the tone for a light and breezy ride, no matter how dark and heavy I felt, no matter where I was going.

I don’t want to keep your heartache
And I don’t want to feel your ghost
And I don’t even know where we will go
Yeah, I’m just trying to make it home

~Late Nights

6) Pageant Material – Kacey Musgraves

There’s so much to love about this record, which is one of the sweetest, funniest, smartest offerings country music had to offer in 2015 and one of my favorite morning sing-a-longs. Kacey Musgraves has a strong wit, sharp tongue and killer voice, wrapped in an aw-shucks-stoner attitude that makes her songs so original and listenable and just overall delightful. Her take on gossipy neighbors and nosy friends shows a mature mindfulness that you’re more likely to read about on yogi websites than hear about in a country song, setting her apart from the usual heartbreak heroines. Musgraves is only two albums in but she’s only getting better – and more sure of herself, too, if the “Dime Store Cowgirl” anthem holds up.

I ain’t exactly Ms. Congenial
Sometimes I talk before I think,

I try to fake it but I can’t
I’d rather lose for what I am than win for what I ain’t

~Pageant Material

5) Peripheral Vision – Turnover

If ever there was a darker, dreamier record this past year, I hadn’t heard it. Turnover came out of nowhere, relatively, to put out one of the most outstanding LPs in the alt-indie scene, one that cut through stereotypes of bands in the genre and threw down a new standard for moody yet upbeat tracks. This record soundtracked many a lonely night, injecting a shot of needy hopelessness right when it was needed, but in the most melodic fashion. There’s a depth in production here that creates a really full sound, but still lets you pick out the guitar parts. So much delay!! And so cohesive, which is why I think it was so easy to listen to time and time again. “Peripheral Vision” is a tribute to the complications and anxieties in relationships, the kind that we all wish we could avoid, but if this is where the stumbles gets you, maybe it’s worth learning your way through.

Would you come here and spin with me?
I’ve been dying to get you dizzy,
Find a way up into your head
So I can make you feel like new again

~Dizzy on the Comedown

4) American Candy – The Maine

This one really sneaked up on me. I had never listened to The Maine before “American Candy.” What I discovered was the purest pop rock I’d heard since radio-friendly All-American Rejects tracks in high school, excellent parts and succinct playing. A perfect balance between light and dark, this record grapples with issues of anxiety and self-consciousness and stereotype better than any I’ve heard in ages, without being too obviously “fuck-the-man.” Why it’s not on other top 10s, I cannot say. Something this well-executed ought to be recognized – there isn’t a bad track on this record, and it never left my rotation since it came out in the first quarter of the year. In a scene jam-packed with releases, that’s not nothing.

Sometimes I feel as though I’m going mad when
I get a touch of saccharine on my lips
I hate the taste on my tongue too damn sweet
I don’t fancy american candy, american candy

~American Candy

3) Something More Than Free – Jason Isbell

This record contains my favorite song of the year, the one that I played on repeat the most, with the chorus that still brings tears to my eyes. I was so obsessed with this record when it came out, and while I listen to it less in full, I still think it’s one of the best showings of the year, with every track showing how timeless and tireless Jason Isbell’s sound is. While his breakthrough on “Southeastern” gave us all a taste of what he is capable of as a songwriter and introduced us to his own personal angels and demons, “Something More Than Free” gives us more of a look into how he sees the world and what matters in, things like working hard and loving true.

“You thought God was an architect, now you know
He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow
And everything you built that’s all for show goes up in flames
In 24 frames”

~24 Frames

2) Astoria – Marianas Trench

The top two were really hard for me this year to balance out, because they both hit me in the gut. So consider this almost a tie…and consider them both the kind that lived up to high expectations. Marianas Trench may not be a well-known act in most music circles, and that might be the biggest oversight in critical estimations. I think Josh Ramsay is a brilliant modern pop composer and if you disagree, I guess you’ve never heard a little song called “Call Me Maybe.” He is a production master – and he shines brightest in his own band, Marianas Trench, who write epic after epic after epic. This one might their strongest yet – clearly 80s inspired, and clearly heavy on the drama. But it’s tight as hell when it comes to hooks. How “One Love” isn’t tearing up the radio stations, I don’t know. In the past month or so since I bought this record I’ve listened to it almost every day, and it only gets better. It only cuts deeper. “Astoria” makes me smile, it makes me cry, it gives me shelter, it makes me a fighter. If ever there was a band that proved pop music as a genre exists beyond what’s on the charts, it’s Marianas Trench, and if there was any rock album in 2015 that lifted my heart to places I didn’t think it could still reach, it was “Astoria.”

“Don’t remind me what the price is when left to my own devices
‘Cause I’ll find out in all due time what happens to never say die”


1) No Closer to Heaven – The Wonder Years

When “The Greatest Generation” came out in 2013, I couldn’t help but think that this big-sounding, on-the-rise rock band from Philadelphia, my favorite active artist, had the makings of a voice of a generation. When “No Closer to Heaven” dropped this year, I knew that inkling was spot-on. Dan Campbell has turned his musings outward, and this record finds pondering the sick, sad world around us as much as his own place in it. The band followed its strengths with this record, and they’ve wound up with some of their best-ever songs, like “Cigarettes and Saints” and “Stained Glass Ceilings.” This is not a record for the faint of heart, as it has its fair share of thrashing and screaming, as well as some disturbed imagery, from car crashes to drug overdoses to gun violence. But in this aggression is a ferocious heart, one that refuses to quit, colored by drum rhythms for days and dueling guitar solos. To me, this is the essential combination for punk rock – an American critique offered by the minstrels of its lower middle class, and loud-as-fuck playing. But there’s something else that that phrase “punk rock” doesn’t quite capture, and that’s literary-level vocabulary, narrative-style scene setting and that particular brand of maturity that only comes from traveling to mental depths so low, and so dark, and surviving them. No one does it quite like The Wonder Years does, and no band ever will.

This god damn machine; hungry and heartless.
My whole generation got lost in the margin.
We put our faith in you. You turned a profit.
Now we’re drowning here under your waves.

~Cigarettes and Saints

Honorable mentions, for lack of enough listening to properly rank:
Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit – Courtney Barnett
Vitals – MuteMath
Traveler – Chris Stapleton
All Your Favorite Bands – Dawes
Dealer – Foxing
1989 -Ryan Adams (listened a lot, but didn’t feel quite right to rank. Best cover album of all time, tho, for sure.)

Past years:

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