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City and Colour

1/3/2016

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”

~Astoria
 

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:
2014
2013
2012
2011

11/30/15

Now I’ve been given the gift of persistence
But it’s become a curse
Unraveling backward
In the distance I heard a dirge
I can see a man
On his face there’s no trace of time
There’s a strange and mad idea I must find

If I try to change direction
I might not find what I’m looking for
But this bitter disposition
Well now must surely run its course

~Mizzy C
City and Colour, If I Should Go Before You

Timing is a blessing sometimes, in the sense that you happen to click with an album two days prior to hearing its headlining tour. No surprise that it is from City and Colour, in the cleanest and smooth and almost jazzy-ish we’ve heard from them yet.

Dallas Green’s voice is as fragile yet shimmering with a confidence as always. There’s an extra boldness, maybe coming from the extra back-up of a full band composing these songs together. I love the emphasis on guitar solos, plugged-in ones on full, retro Gibsons.

This coming from a listener who is still wowed by “The Hurry and the Harm” all the time. I’m so so excited to see him perform for the first time at a great venue Wednesday night….and even more excited to find I may be able to make it to an in-studio live session tomorrow!! Private!! My heart may literally may explode,and I couldn’t be any happier to see fireworks.

I’m looking for a way out
For a place that no one knows
Please take me away now
Somewhere it don’t feel so cold

Troubles on my mind
Troubles on my mind
For the rest of the days I’ve cried
For the rest of the days I’ve cried

I’m searching for a paradise
That I just can’t seem to find
I’m searching for a paradise
For the time of my life

I’m searching for a paradise
That I just can’t seem to find
I’m searching for a paradise
Gonna go where the spirit guides

~Paradise

City and Colour, The Hurry and the Harm

2/15/15

So, it’s easy to hate on Valentine’s Day, or any celebration of any sort, really, in the name of being jaded or cynical or merely above the commercialization of it all –  but is there anything so wrong with telling someone you love them, on any day? No. What’s so wrong, then, about a day exclusively devoted to that?

I guess, in the perfect relationship, such a day would be every day. 
But that’s not how it goes. 
Most relationships aren’t perfect. Most are fractured and complicated. So many fall apart under the weight of personalities and realities and the heavy, constant weight of expectation. The best, I think, rise above and heal the harm, like skin over scars. I think that’s what this song is about. About trying through the hardest times to stay optimistic, to be hopeful, to believe. About counting down the days til the open wounds are closed.
Show me Dallas Green songs and I will show you how to wear your heart on your sleeve. His voice on this track is nothing short of stunning – an incredible, inspired performance – and his playing, solo acoustic spotlit like the rest of this brilliant little record, are captivating in a deep and feeling kind of way, one just right for lonely mornings and even better for the solitude of a cold, dark night. 

“So there goes my life
Passing by with every exit sign
It’s been so long
Sometimes I wonder how I will stay strong
No sleep tonight
I’ll keep on driving these dark highway lines
And as the moon fades
One more night gone, only twenty more days

But I will see you again
I will see you again a long time from now

And there goes my life
Passing by with every departing flight
And its been so hard
So much time so far apart
And she walks the night
How many hearts will die tonight

And will things have changed?
I guess I’ll find out in seventeen days.

But I will see you again
I will see you again a long time from now

My body aches,
and it hurts to sing,
and no one is moving
And I wish that I weren’t here tonight,
but this is my life.

And I will see you again
I will see you again a long time from now

And I will see you again
I will see you again a long time from now.”

~Hello, I’m in Delaware
City and Colour, Sometimes

1/28/15

How long the nights can feel when you are alone, how grey the skies can look in the morning when you feel as empty as the day before.
How suffocating the world can be, with all its petty problems and daily difficulties compounding the very real, often exhilarating, occasionally traumatic exercise of existing.
But these times are temporary ones. These struggles will pass, just as they did before, and all that’s around you will look new again, tinted by love. The sweet sounds of morning birds will ring in your ears, the sparkle of sun will fill your eyes, and on that day, you will live like you never have before. That day is coming. It could even be tomorrow, if you let it.

“I heard the church bells from afar,
But we found each other in the dark.
And when the smoke does finally pass
We will rise above all the ash.

Cause we’re gonna live, we’re gonna live, we’re gonna live
We’re gonna live, we’re gonna live, we’re gonna live
We’re gonna live, we’re gonna live, we’re gonna live

At last.

So bright, the flames burned in our hearts,
That we found each other in the dark.
Like beasts out in the wilderness
We are fighting to survive and convalesce.

But we’re gonna live, we’re gonna live, we’re gonna live
We’re gonna live, we’re gonna live, we’re gonna live
We’re gonna live, we’re gonna live, we’re gonna live
Like the rest.

Through the black starless water,
And the cold lonely air.
On the rock restless seas,
The vessel in deep disrepair.
And I swore they started singing,
But then oh, rejoice!
I can still hear your voice.

Then I heard the church bells from afar
But we found each other in the dark.”

~We Found Each Other in the Dark 
City and Colour, Little Hell

2/21/14

“What if I did not love you?
Where would that leave me
Would I wander through the avenues
Under a pall of misery

Would I be face down in the gutter
With cheap whiskey on my breath
The lonely life of a writer
Whose words could not pay his debts

Singin’ please don’t, please don’t pass me by
I am alive, oh can’t you see?
That I’ve been blinded completely
Please don’t, please don’t pass me by
I am alive, oh can’t you see?
That I am pleading for your mercy

What if we became strangers?
Would you notice my face in a crowd?
And you could you hear the sorrow in my voice?
Helplessly crying your name out loud

Would I be searching for a savior?
Burned and burning with regret

The lonely life of a writer
Only if one last desperate request

Singin’ please don’t, please don’t pass me by
I am alive, oh can’t you see?
That I’ve been blinded completely
Please don’t, please don’t pass me by
I am alive, oh can’t you see?
That I am pleading for your mercy

I’ve been on the lam
Being hunted, somethin’ fierce
They say time and tide, it waits for no man
But I was just hopin’
These storm filled skies would clear

Please don’t, please don’t pass me by
Please don’t, please don’t pass me by
Please don’t, please don’t pass me by
I am alive, oh can’t you see?
That I am pleading for your mercy”
~This Lonely Life
City and Colour, The Hurry and the Harm

I read a quote once, which said something along the lines of “when you smile alone, you really mean it.” I think about that quote most times I find myself content with solitude, when whatever the night brings is seemingly worth indulging when, when the quiet moments inspire gratitude.

Most times, that happens when I’m listening to a song, no matter how sad or sorrowful it may be.

Dallas Green writes some soulful melodies, and oh, are they a joy to sing, even when they sing of desperation.  He captures it in every note, though his style has always been one of restraint and reserve. No matter how much feeling there is, he doesn’t resort to harsh tones or gimmicks to portray turmoil and confusion. Instead he opts for elegant phrasing and classic verbiage for a high-minded appeal to match the direct and dire feelings he projects, finding the right balance of emotion and perspective.

City and Colour’s latest LP, “The Hurry and the Harm,” has been a constant fallback in my catalog of late, full of interesting lyrical concepts and satisfying melodies ripe for deconstruction. My favorite track, “The Lonely Life,” is a prime example: with a standard pop song format and tasteful, driving instrumentation, lyrical longing is matched with movement. Sure, it’s a song coming from a place of discontent conceptually (it is City and Colour, after all) but the walking bass lines, spotlit percussion and melismatic chorus form a steady foundation that’s far from hopeless. Rather, it’s one of wisdom.

“And so sudden the winds change
And so sudden you lose your faith
I will provide you
With a reason to believe

Cause you are a single grain
A mere molecule
Mistaken for a king
You’re only a simple fool

So take, better care
Of yourself, my friend
Take better care
Of yourself, my friend

~Take Care,
City and Colour, The Hurry and the Harm
Throughout the record, the backing instrumentation is incredibly satisfying: everyone knows Dallas Green can play guitar, but can he set a song?  Yes. Green writes incredibly satisyfing vocal lines and I’ve found I love singing along, even if there’s no way my fumbling amateur fingers can pull off those chords. His voice and message, throughout the years, has been a  constant one, and his most recent works say to me he’s learned how to refine his strengths of melody, rhyme and resolve.

Tonight I find myself listening to this album while playing out some boring, modern role of adulthood, the kind that involves sorting through institutional obligations while drinking cheap Cabernet. I find myself, as more often than not, most nights, desperate for creativity. I hold onto the influences and inspirations that spark reaction, I grab onto whatever I hear or read that provides some semblance of sense, and I let that prove to me my own reasons for creating such material might not be as futile as I write them off to be. After all, you have to start somewhere, and that may as well be the place where it feels right feeling like yourself.

“I don’t wanna be revolutionary
No, I’m just looking for the sweetest melody
If I overstayed my welcome
I would take my things and leave
‘Cause I’m not trying to be revolutionary

What gave you the impression
That your opinion means anything to anyone?
What gave you the right
To bear arms against me, against us?

You’re nothing but a bunch of amateur commentators
Who live your lives hiding behind a wall of insecurities

I don’t wanna be revolutionary
No, I’m just looking for the sweetest melody
If I overstayed my welcome
I would take my things and leave
‘Cause I’m not trying to be revolutionary”

~Commentators
City and Colour, The Hurry and the Harm

7/23/13

“I can hear my train comin’…it’s a lonesome and distant cry..”

Had this stuck in my head all day, sat down to try to learn it. Thirty minutes later and a tab or two later, I had the main chords figured out but absolutely no technical ability to pull of the playing, the picking or the chord changes. Mostly because I am no guitar player but also because Dallas Green is a man of incredible skill and talent. He plays the way some people write, dynamics and rhythm so perfect and fluid because they are innate. It’s nothing that can be taught – refined, maybe, but some are just born with it.

And his words. Simple and telling, effortless rhymes. If this song doesn’t make your blood run a little slower, make your thoughts a little darker, and somehow still you for a second, I’m not sure if you understand powerful songwriting the same way I do. Because damn. He gets the feeling so right on, he doesn’t even need to say it.

“I can hear my train comin’
It’s a lonesome and distant cry
I can hear my train comin’
Now I’m runnin’ for my life
What makes a man walk away from his mind?
I think I know
I think I might know

I can feel the wind blowin’
It’s sending shivers down my spine
I can feel the wind blowin’
It shakes the trees and the power lines

What makes a man spend his whole life in disguise?
I think I know
I think I might know

I think I might know
I think I might know, oh oh

I can see the sun settin’
It’s casting shadows on the sea
I can see the sun, it’s setting
It’s getting colder, starting to freeze
What makes a man want to break a heart with ease?
I think I know
I think I might know

I think I might know
I think I might know, oh oh

Well I can hear my train comin’
Looks like time is not on my side
Well I can hear my train comin’
I’m still runnin’ for my life
What makes a man pray, when he’s about to die?
I think I know

I think I might know”

~What Makes a Man
City and Colour, Bring Me Your Love

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