learning love songs

est. 2008


Kevin Devine


Another year, another end-of-the-year list. I’m getting in the habit of these things now, and also getting familiar with the sense of pressure and dread at shuffling my favorite music around.

Meriting a spot on this means it was music I couldn’t tear myself away from, that I binge-listened to on dull afternoons, evening walks or morning workouts. I turned to these albums when I couldn’t turn to anything else, when their hooks and chord progressions ran their way through my mind all day, or when I needed to hear that heartbreaking line one more time. I felt like I listened to more new music in 2016 than any other, mostly due to a reviewing side-hustle as well as getting Spotify premium on my phone, so narrowing it all down to 10 was hard. Obviously this year also saw incredible, groundbreaking releases from the likes of Bowie and Beyonce, and that song from The Chainsmokers hooked me as well as anybody, but these are the records that really resonated with me. I hope when I listen to them in 2017 and in years to come, I’ll be able to close my eyes and remember the place I was in when I first heard them, blanketed in sunshine settling into my Left Coast skin.

10) Kevin Devine – Instigator

One of my favorite songwriters, who in my opinion just keeps getting better with time. I regret that I was unable to catch him on tour this year, as the rocking and rolling songs on Instigator promise a great show. But I love it for walks around the city and morning jumpstarts, too, as the way Devine phrases his thoughts, feelings and societal observations are ripe for pondering. Though KD likely has one of the biggest catalogs of artists of his caliber/generation, I’d say that Instigator is a standout that could be presented to show a new listener what he’s all about.

9) Miranda Lambert – The Weight of These Wings

Ms.Lambert takes the crown for my favorite record to sing this year. Though it was a fourth-quarter release, I haven’t stopped listening to this record since the day it came out, and it pushed me back toward regular guitar practice. Lambert really tells a story, and gives so much context to heartbreak, growing up, moving on and self-exploration, all with a wry smile and whiskey glass by her side. For that, and for the bold vulnerability, I bow down.

8) Moose Blood – Blush

These guys came out of seemingly nowhere to quickly become one of my favorite UK rock groups — and Blush burst forth this year as a collection of edgy heartfelt anthems. Nothing better than seeing them live at The Fonda opening for The Wonder Years, too — I love their cynicism in spite of youth, and their energy in spite of the cynicism. I love their obvious romanticism on songs like “Knuckles” and “Honey” and the aching regret on tracks like “Glow” and “Sway.” Also like how all the song titles are one word. Blush is as upbeat as you could want from a 2016 pop punk band, and as smooth and sweet as its namesake.

7) Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial

Hearing Will Toledo’s voice for the first time is like hearing a memory you can’t place — you don’t know where, but you swear you’ve heard it before. He’s just that ubiquitous. As a brilliant guitar player and subtle, wry lyricist, Toledo is chock full of talent and has a substantial following behind him. This year’s Teens of Denial was a stunner, in its own depressing and over-it way. Gems like “Vincent” and “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” show how hard Car Seat Headrest can rock without abandoning pensive sensibilities, one of my favorite lines rock musicians can walk. Toledo has tapped into a raw rock and roll vibe that used to only exist in bands you had to go backwards to find, but this record showed how alive and well the genre can be.

6) Bon Iver – 22, A Million

God this album! I don’t have it on vinyl yet, but of all the records on this list, it’s the one I have my eye on the most. Justin Vernon has established himself as the kind of musician who pushes boundaries, and this eagerly awaited album shows that he does not make waves for their own sake, but rather because he has developed something to say. They heavy reliance on vocal manipulation and other-wordly echoes made 22, A Million an unforgettable listen, if only because it sounds like *nothing* else out there. But it has the same beauty as Bon Iver’s breakthrough work, with a few more levels of abstraction thrown in. I fell in love from the start, and this is now one of my favorite “focus” records when my mind starts running away with me. “8(circle)” is my favorite, although I’m probably not alone there. Three cheers for artistic expression, and those stay their path.

5) Joyce Manor- Cody

If I had to recommend an album for anyone to listen to this year, it’d be Joyce Manor. Hands down. For me, they’ll be up there with TWY and Brand New, carrying that mantle in their own sharp style. But we already knew that; the best thing about Cody is the way they’ve harnessed their aggression and thrash into polished hooks and climatic builds. “Last You Heard of Me” was my anthem upon release of the single, and it exemplifies the meaning and message these guys can cram into what on the surface one excepts to be a silly little pop punk song. Joyce doesn’t take themselves too seriously, which I love, but there’s nothing silly or little about them at this point.

4) The Hotelier – Goodness

Deep and resonant, heartfelt and literary….The Hotelier’s much -anticipated follow-up did not disappoint, nor did it simply satiate. Goodness is lush and full and while it doesn’t have the same sadness as their breakthrough record Home, Like No Place Is There, it has the same existential darkness and rock-solid progressions. Songs like “Piano Player” and “Soft Animal” channel the turmoil that we’ve come to know and love from The Hotelier, while pushing musical boundaries with different kinds of builds and busts. There’s a lot of depth here, and the shower of critical reception on Goodness gave me hope that it was recognized by not just niche audiences but the music world at large. After playing this album to death upon release, I can still put it on and get lost in it — damn right, they did it again.

3) Jimmy Eat World- Integrity Blues

Getting to listen to Integrity Blues for the first time felt like getting a phone call from a friend you haven’t talked to in awhile. You knew what they were up to, you knew they were doing OK, but you hadn’t heard the ins and outs yet. With this record, the singles were promising, but a part of me held my breath thinking this could be an album full of filler. Not so! Integrity Blues is likely the best album JEW’s put out since Chase This Light, and though my adoration for Invented is a very real thing, the songs on this record are true and honest alternative rock that embrace maturity in melody and meaning…the closer, “Pol Roger,” is easily one of my favorite Jimmy Eat World songs of all time, and not just for those sweet, sweet Jim Atkins harmonies.

2) case/lang/veirs – case/lang/veirs

This album got under my skin so quick, it was like falling in love at first sight. I think I read about the famed, talented trio just a couple days after the album dropped, and got right in on the ground floor with it. And it blew me away, with its stunning harmonies, poetic effort and lush sonic landscape. There’s not a song on this record that doesn’t feel like a breath of fresh air to me. There’s a sweetness and a strength, an assertive foot forward and knowing shy smile. Every song paints a picture of people, places and things, and eloquently describes intricate emotions with excellent harmonies and beautiful, lithe guitar parts. “I Want To Be Here,” “Supermoon” and “Best Kept Secret” all became instant classics for me, and the perfect songs to soundtrack my first summer in LA.

1) Pinegrove – Cardinal

I had trouble figuring out what was my favorite of my favorites, but I think I knew it had to be Pinegrove. I made an instant connection with Cardinal for its unique sound and literary qualities, but the album’s staying power really went above and beyond anything else this year. Pinegrove was the easiest band for me to bring up when talking music with friends, as I knew they were likely to be a spot-on suggestion for anyone who likes alt-rock, folk-rock or anything in the indie vein. When you hear songs like “Aphasia” and “New Friends,” you’re struck by not only their honesty but their plaintive innocence, as if you’re having a conversation with a thoughtful friend about your lives and feelings. That familiarity makes Pinegrove instantly accessible, even before you get into their slightly quirky and innovative ways of structuring songs. Seeing them at The Echo was one of my most memorable concert experiences of the year, too, if only because the way they layered up their sound with extra synth & auxiliary really brought their songs to life. There’s a comfort in knowing that if I heard this album when I was an emo teenager, I would’ve loved it for the same reasons I do now — and it gives me hope that today’s emo teenagers are being introduced to quality indie rock. Pinegrove also delivered one of my most definitive favorite lyrical truisms of the year — “I am outta my goddamn mind and out to California,” which sums it up as well as anything. So looking forward to continuing to wrap myself up in Cardinal, and see where this band goes next.

And as a little bonus, here’s a playlist of my favorite songs of the year, added in no particular order than how I remembered them. I kept it to one per artist, off of albums that dropped this calendar year (so you can expect that new Ryan Adams’ tune here next year). Looking over it, I’m really struck by the variety of the artists, and how despite their differences, they all managed to strike the same chord in me.


Today is akin to a high holy day for rock, folk and alternative music fans: Jimmy Eat World, American Football, Kevin Devine, John. K. Samson and Dan Layus all put out new records today. I’ve given them all a listen through and they are all deeply fortifying and satisfying in different ways: JEW with it reliable rock and pensive hooks and some of their best instrumentation in years; American Football’s light and delicate touch is a blissful return to what was spawned 17 years ago, Samson’s poetry and imagery is as sharp as ever. Layus’ record was a surprise, but the Augustana frontman has leaned into his country and folk influences for some really fluid songwriting. But the song that has hit me hardest today comes from Devine’s “Instigator,” which might be his most succinct and polished effort yet.

KD hasn’t lost his introspective or his progressive politics, and he often embraces a clean-cut, bold guitar sound that feels very classic and full and realized, polished by years of touring with The Godamn Band. It’s a good contrast for his often dark narratives, which include some haunting refrains. The whole thing is a great listen and I’m sure to return to it constantly, just as his “Matter of Time” collection has been a go-to favorite this past here.

One song in particular is an early favorite, for both its almost lullaby-like melody and its message. It’s a ballad toward the end of the album called “No One Says You Have To” that previously appeared on a split last year, but I haven’t heard it before and it has slapped me upside the head with its message self-awareness and self-care, and its soft, cyclical melody. It has a beautiful parallelism of lyrics as far as repetition and it’s absolutely soothing and haunting and vulnerable and warm. We need more of this, this honestly, to counteract our own cynicism and ironic defense mechanisms that pull us apart from each other. I am so grateful for this kind of admission from a musician and human I admire and respect.

To me, this song is about our sort of useless need to apologize for being human. Maybe it’s largely a product of our success-driven society, but we always seem to want to beat ourselves up for not being *something* enough or for making decisions that maybe were the best we could do at the time. We shouldn’t feel sorry for being who we are.

I can’t say I’m underrated
I can’t say it, so
I can’t say I’m underrated
I know, I know, I know

She says, “Watch your ego, baby.”
She says, “Take it slow.”
She says, “That’s a bad look, honey.”
I know, I know, I know

It gets so lonely inside my mind
I’m surrounded in love all the time

I get stuck in simple phrases
Complicate straight lines
If there’s a knot that don’t need tying
I try, I try, I try

She’s no font of Christ-like patience
And neither, sir, am I
But she’s honest in her imperfections
I try, I try, I try

It just gets scary inside my mind
I turn straw men to monsters
And line their mouths with knives

I say, “I can’t race forever.
Can’t raise the rock so high.”
She says, “No one says you have to.
Let go and take your time.”
~No One Says You Have To
Kevin Devine, Instigator


In this noisy, terrible modern world, where everyone shouts or shoots or hates, I still do what I always used to do: Put on my headphones, lower my eyelids, and try not to weep openly at the fact that life is a gift and we are so good at wasting it, so busy busying ourselves with differences that we lose the utter sameness we ought to celebrate.

“It’s getting weirder
Than I projected
It’s saying something
In all directions:

‘I held the fear in my mouth
I choked it down and now I’ll never let it out.'”

Kevin Devine, Bubblegum


“I just see everybody working for that same eternal weekend
Droning on and on and on and never doing what we wanted
Heavy legs two steps behind some forever dangling carrot.

and I’m tired of this
So who’s to say that we can’t just fucking change it?
Oh they want you to whistle while you work, 
they want you to whistle while you work your life away.
Oh they want you to whistle while you work, 
they expect you to whistle while you work your life away.
and I know it seems dramatic
but I treat it like a crisis
The office to the coffin
All our time and talent wasted

and that weight against your throat
is that a noose dressed like a necklace?
From here I couldn’t really tell the difference
Come on show me the difference 
Come on and show me the difference
Either way I say let’s not take more chances.

~Noose Dressed Like a Necklace
Kevin Devine and the Goddamn Band, Matter of Time

Approaching Kevin Devine’s catalog is a bit like when you’re on a hike approaching a series of boulders and rocks in your way – you have no idea how the hell you are going to get through it all, but you know you’ll get somewhere once you do. Few songwriters in this age are as accomplished and underrated, I would say. Has KD ever reached any kind of critical success beyond the emo/punk circles that gave him credit and fame to start back when? If not, they ought to, because if there’s anything more impressive than the consistency Devine manages to produce, it’s the astute observations and sociopolitical pronouncements he espouses, the kind that many artists who want to “make a statement” wish they could say something about. At a time when everyone is shouting, this guy is actually saying something worth listening to.

I’m knee-deep toady by listening to “Matter of Time” remastered, a collection of songs recorded about three years ago but only recently were re-released in a shiny and new package for a vinyl release. So glad I found this. The production on these is fantastic, I love the full-band sound that’s backing him up and tearing into solos and cymbal crashes as Devine shouts his guts aloud. He is a great guitar player but he’s a wordsmith first and foremost; his ability to string together three dozen word thoughts in a single verse is unmatched. This was clearly recorded at a time when they were onto something, and the live recording highlights just how good these players are — locked in and ready to crescendo when they must, or dial down and let it the strings fade out at the last word. Probably helps they’ve got great material to work with – these songs offer an approachable, tried-and-true rock sound with off-kilter perspective and a hell of a lot of energy and grit.

What’s captured in this live studio session is what you get at one of their shows, blissfully so. I had the privilege of seeing him & the Goddamn Band in concert earlier this year and I get chills every time I think about it. Just as impressive was the part where the mic dropped out and he quieted the sing-along crowd to get through (I think it was) an acoustic cover of “It Never Stops.” He was a maestro, conducting himself as much as the rest of his band and the audience, both humble offering and

This guy, I’m telling you. He’s not fucking around. For years, I looked at his catalog as something kind of ancillary and also-ran, and it wasn’t until 2015 that I realized what a mistake that was. Fortunately, there’s a ton left to discover and absorb, and I’d wager that Devine, with his inimitable voice and perspective, won’t tire or slow down in his steps to share these honest passages of tired American life. At least, I hope not. I just want more of this sound, full and feisty and frustrated, unfettered.

“And I’m grabbing at a feeling now
That I can’t ever name.
Some sign posted to remind me
How I wanted things this way.
She says ‘It’s pretty but you hate yourself.

I can hear it clear as day.’
 And I say ‘I sing like this,
It sounds worse than it is. ‘

I’m okay, okay.
I’m okay, okay.
I’m okay, okay.
I’m okay, okay.
So just stay, just stay
So just stay, just stay
I’m okay, okay.
So just stay, just stay,
Just stay, just stay.”

~No Time Flat
Kevin Devine and the Goddamn Band, Matter of Time 

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