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Category: lists

Good in 10

Over the last few weeks I’ve attempted to create a playlist of ten songs (including one from 2023) that together paint a picture of what “good music” is to me. It was a lot harder to put together than I thought it would be, and I’m sure that I’d end up with a different list if I did it again next year.

Each song was chosen to showcase something I LOVE about music, standing in for other songs and artists that I wish could have made the list. Because of that, some of my favorite songs and artists didn’t make the cut, simply because other songs were better suited to represent my tastes. Whole genres are missing, and that’s a shame. Special shout out to Classic Rock, Musical Theatre, Classic Jazz, Cowboy Country, Ambient Country, Funk, Soul, and electronic music in general. Listen online at

For each song I’ve plucked out one of my favorite lyrics, and I’ve attempted to describe why I think each song is great and in some cases provided a little personal history. Song order isn’t any indication of priority or preference.

Vampire Empire – Big Thief (2023)

You turn me inside out, and then you want me outside in
You spin me all around, and then you ask me not to spin

Vampire Empire is my 2023 song. My son Josiah is a big fan of Adrianne Lenker, the lead singer of Big Thief, and he brought this song to my attention. While Lenker’s solo releases are quiet and lovely (see 2020’s “songs”), Big Thief is rough, dynamic, and raucous—at times almost unhinged. You can FEEL that this is a live recording when you listen. It’s got space and rough edges but never feels wobbly or too tight. While I can’t quite figure out what these lyrics are about, they’re evocative enough that I don’t really mind because to me this song is about energy and dynamism and rawness. Also, that electric guitar tone? I LIKE IT.

Flower Moon – Vampire Weekend (2019)
Father of the Bride (with Steve Lacy, Danielle Haim)

It was the right place, wrong time
Another night at the borderline
Another night in the sway of the flower moon

Father of the Bride is the best arranged, best produced indie rock/pop record that I’ve ever heard, and this is my favorite song on the record. I love the way this song builds upon itself, looping and growing and changing as it progresses. It’s stunning the way the melody is repeated and interpolated throughout, using differing instrumentation and vocal layers. When the bridge comes at 2:40, the swirling woodwinds’ response to the female vocals are a perfect set up for the breakdown and slight re-build. For me, it’s a masterpiece.

Random Rules – Silver Jews (1998)
American Water

I asked the painter why the roads are colored black
He said, “Steve it’s because people leave
And no highway will bring them back”

David Berman is my all-time favorite lyricist. He deftly juggles sincerity, humor, cliche, and surprise in his lyrics in a way that deeply resonates with me. This style of singer-songwriter indie-country has been a favorite of mine for a long time. I saw Silver Jews play in Chicago on a rare tour in 2006 and it was a great show. Sadly, David took his life shortly after releasing a record under the moniker Purple Mountains in 2019. My favorite Silver Jews record is The Natural Bridge (1996). This song stands in for a number of my all time favorite artists working in this vein, notably Will Oldham (Bonnie Prince Billy) and Bill Callahan (Smog). +5 points for any song with pedal steel guitar!

Once – Richard Buckner (1998)

I dreamed of a couple dancing close
and drunk in the spray of lights they made
And once I was dug up, I was sinking
but now I’m longing to be saved

Richard Bucker’s Devotion + Doubt (1997) was the first record I ever loved that was obviously country music. At that time in my life, I had only heard radio country and wasn’t a fan (still not). But Buckner’s voice and poetry snared me and helped me get past my country music misgivings. His voice has an intense gravity—I’ve seen him play a room with just a guitar and you could hear a pin drop. I didn’t realize it when I created this list, but “Once” is the only song that was on my “good music” list in 2002 that made it on again this 20+ years later.

Fire Truck – Andy Shauf (2020)
The Neon Skyline

Now that I’m standing in the ashes
I just want it to be whole

The Neon Skyline is a concept/story album that I highly recommend hearing in its entirety, but this song stands well enough on its own. On this and many of Shauf’s songs, he tells a specific story but crafts the lyrics in such a way that they open up to feel universal and relatable. When he describes the conversation in verse one I see myself: “sometimes I feel like I should never speak again.” The mixture of regret and hope and new beginnings resonates with me. Sonically, I love the juxtaposition of the intimate verses and build to swirling guitars over all the“do do do.”

Gnarciss – Jeff Parker (2020)
Suite for Max Brown (with Makaya McCraven, Josh Johnson, Paul Bryan)

Jeff Parker first hit my radar as guitarist for the incredible instrumental post-rock band, Tortoise. In many ways, Tortoise was my gateway back to Jazz after a long hiatus. This composition is an interpolation of Joe Henderson’s “Black Narcissus” but doesn’t sound much like Henderson’s 1969 recording. Parker marries beat-music aesthetics popularized by hip-hop producers such as J Dilla with improvisation-driven jazz. I love the way the beat and bass thump you through the composition while the strings, sax, vibes, and guitar undulate in and out through the recording. I saw these guys play Gnarciss live at the Chicago record release for Suite for Max Brown and it was other-worldly. This track features Makaya McCraven on drums and Josh Johnson on sax, two contemporary jazz musicians/band leaders who release fantastic albums of their own.

Ultralight Beam – Kanye West (2016)
The Life of Pablo
(with Chance the Rapper, The-Dream, Kelly Price, Kirk Franklin)

We on an ultralight beam
This is a God dream
This is everything

Kanye is crazy, right? Sure, but he’s also an innovator and collaborator on a whole ‘nother level. I love how this song mashes up gospel, hip-hop, and soul into one tight package. I love the swells that drive the opening section and the sporadic staccato drum hits throughout. Those moments when the choir syncs up to the primary vocal are arresting. The way the beat drops out completely for the first half of Chance’s verse before the drum hits again and the horns join in gives me shivers. One of Kanye’s greatest skills is getting a bunch of talented people together to collaborate and thatgift really shines on “Ultralight Beam.”

Everything – Jeremy Cunningham, Dustin Lorenzi, Paul Bryan (2020)
A Better Ghost

I’m learning to be able to really absorb the fact that it’s all good.
You see? And in that, my greatest joy is everything.

Ever since I first heard this song in 2020 it’s been my favorite jazz recording. Something about “Everything” just satisfies every craving I have when listening to jazz. The quiet wanderings, the near loss of structure just in time for it all come back together again. Lorenzi’s sax playing is at times soulful and sweet, and other times striving and raw. Paul Bryan lays down the grooviest bass and Cunningham’s drumming is exquisite and interesting without getting in the way. I like the way that the seam of the looped sample (from Sonny Rollins, jazz legend) is obscured as the instrumentalists take turns putting themselves forward. I’ve probably listened to this song more than any other single jazz tune and I’m still not tired of it. Might never be.

Built Then Burnt [Hurrah! Hurrah!] – Silver Mt. Zion (2001)
Born Into Trouble As The Sparks Fly Upward

Good words, strong words, words that could’ve moved mountains
Words that no one ever said
We were all waiting to hear those words and no one ever said them

Theatrical, dramatic, ambient, emotive. Ridiculously tragic but somehow hopeful. The reverbed-out guitar and the string arrangement take me to the limit. I don’t have the words to properly describe why I’m drawn to this music, but I keep coming back to this song even after twenty years.

Fool’s Game – Glen Hansard (2019)
This Wild Willing

It’s a leap of faith
Lover, that we blindly take
I’m taking it with you and no other
No hesitating

I like it when a song takes me on a journey, and this one sure does. This arrangement is so ridiculously good: the subtle ticks of the cymbals, the swelling bass and background vocals, the plucking of strings, the electronic effects on the vocals, the woodwind melodies. And then, just when you’re lulled into a state of relaxation, the whole thing opens up WIDE. Have you ever felt this way? Have you ever just been walking in the woods and taking it all in, when you turn a bend and it’s like God just turned the whole world up to eleven? As if that wasn’t enough, when we’ve drank through the firehose of sensation the song comes back to quiet, and a beautiful voice sings in a language we don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. Beautiful.

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Good in 10 (2002 version)

The inspiration for “Good in 10” was a playlist I made in 2002. Around that time I started an mp3 music blog and what follows is the inaugural post (with minor edits). It’s interesting to see how my tastes have both changed and stayed pretty much the same. Here is the 2002 version of “Good in 10.”

In November of 2002, a few friends and I each agreed to form a list of 10 songs. The songs could be formative, addictive, whatever—but the list was to epitomize each person’s idea of “good music” and had to include at least one track released in 2002. If i were to do this again i’m sure the list would look different, but here’s the list and notes and you can listen online here:

Anisette – June of 44 (1996)
Tropics & Meridians

Tell all the people that he’s fine
So fine, he’s fine, so fine

June of 44 helped me cross the sea of Heavy Metal and “Alternative” genres to the greener pastures of indie-rawk. In 1994 my best friend Markus Lunkenheimer introduced me to June of 44 (then Rodan) and (Steve Albini’s) Shellac. This was the most aggressive but dynamic and sonicly rich music i had heard. This particular song is incredible to listen to on walkman while walking – the groove is such a pushing and pulling (oh my i love it!) I love how they juxtapose the two guitars and bass with similar (but different) loops that mix and mingle. the quietness and the screaming – the anxiety and the peace…

Cut Your Hair – Pavement (1994)
Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain

I remember lying
I don’t remember a line
I don’t remember a word
But I don’t care, I care, I really don’t care
Did you see the drummer’s hair?

At the time i heard this record i was listening to a lot of more ‘heavy’ groups and some jazz. My friend Jim brought this CD along with us on a road trip from Ames, Iowa to Eureka, California. Pavement’s catchy hooks and good humor kept me going on the road. i must have listened to the tape i dubbed of this a hundred million times walking across campus and singing to myself in the car. Listening through it the other day i guess i was singing along pretty loud… my boss walked in and i realized that i was basically belting it out.

I Was A Stranger – Smog (1997)
Red Apple Falls

Why do you women in this town
Let me look at you so bold?
You should have seen what I was
In the last town

For a depressing year this album was my life. Not only do i love pedal-steel guitar – Bill Callahan (Smog) always seems to sing what i would sing if i were blatantly honest and unredeemed. Here he makes an interesting statement: it’s worse to be well-known than it is to be a stranger…

New Partner – Palace Music (1995)
Viva Last Blues

Now you’ll haunt me, you’ll haunt me
‘Til I’ve paid for what i’ve done
It’s a payment which precludes the having of fun

My studio mate gave me a mix tape that had a song called ‘come little dog’ by The Palace Brothers which didn’t stand out a great deal to me at the time, but later that year i was flipping through records and saw this album and picked it up out of name recognition. Now Will Oldham (AKA: Palace Brothers, Palace Music, Bonny ‘Prince’ Billy) is my all-time favorite artist. I love how Will’s lyrics create a visual picture in my mind’s eye, and the chorus melody and harmony are both a treat to sing along with.

Pretty Eyes – Silver Jews (1996)
The Natural Bridge

I believe that stars are the headlights of angels
Driving from heaven to save us, to save us
Look in the sky
They’re driving from heaven into our eyes

David Berman, singer/songwriter for Silver Jews writes the most beautiful, touching, and tragic lyrics. This song and album kicked off for a period where I started thinking about music at the level of the ‘song’ – rather than: hook, voice, riff, instrumentation, lyric. Something about the rambling connections that the lyrics make through this song endears it to me. David has a way of taking cliches and putting them to use – poking fun at the shallow nature of cliches while acknowledging the power that the phrases wield.

The Shortest Distance Between Two Points Is a Straight Line – Simon Joyner (1993)
Room Temperature

The light bulb above your head has burned out
We hope that doesn’t mean you’re uninspired
All your bright ideas are
Now suffering in the dark

This is the album brought me out of pop music. Was lucky enough to borrow this tape when i was still hungry for DIY musicians. Simon and his friend Chris ran a tape-label called ‘Sing Eunuchs!’ in Omaha. I used to send them tapes of my music in hopes of getting distribution. Chris and Simon always wrote encouraging letters in reply even when (as i look back) most of what i sent them was formative at best.

Magazine – Pedro the Lion (2002)

Oh look you earned your wings
Are you an angel now, or a vulture?
Constantly hovering over
Waiting for a big mistake

I began hearing about David Bazan within Christian circles in 1998 but at the time was sorely disappointed with all Christian music and had only a passing interest. In late 1999 i went by myself to see Pedro The Lion (David’s band) at Schubas before i had ever heard his music. I was blown away. The lyrics were honest and the music was tight. Pedro has gone from small shows at Schubas to packing the Metro and the music just keeps getting better. This is my favorite track from their newest. David has a way of using sarcasm to communicate truth to the cynical and pessimistic.

Once – Richard Buckner (1998)

Even my heroes are almost gone
Almost folding from the flame
But how low can your fuse glow and warm you
until your torch begins to fade

I first encountered Richard Buckner when i was reviewing CDs for my college radio station. There was a ‘reject’ bin that was free for the taking so i would grab about 20 every time i went in (most ending up back in the reject pile.) One reject batch included Buckner’s album ‘Devotion + Doubt’ – which really threw me for a loop. it was clearly country music, but had what I considered to be a higher level of musicianship and lyrics/writing than I would have previously connected to the country genre. it became a guilty pleasure of mine – what I was then calling indie-country (and now refer to as ‘insurgent country’). this song is an example of what i like Buckner for: impossibly sad- moody lyrics, melody driven tunes, great musicianship, country twang. His show at Schubas was incredible in 2000.

Over The Ocean – Low (1996)
The Curtain Hits the Cast

If I belong, then I’ll be longer than expected
And if I’m wrong, the mighty and strong will be rejected

So smooth, so slow… sweet harmonies and a sadness that’s not devoid of hope. Basically, this song gives me the shivers i find it so beautiful.

Autumn Leaves – Cannonball Adderly (1958)
Somethin’ Else (with Miles Davis, John Coltrane)

I went through a big jazz phase for a few years (94-97) but don’t listen to it much anymore. this song is one of my favorites. I always want to hear it near the first snowfall of the year. something about the melody here that gets me going. the line-up on this is like late 50s jazz all stars. When these three were playing together—magic.

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Mix: 15 from 2019

I’ve put together another installment of my year-end favorite song mixes – this time it’s “15 songs from 2019.” There are a lot of really special songs that didn’t make the mix this year. I listened far and wide in 2019, but ultimately spent most of my time with several AMAZING records that came out this year (Vampire Weekend, Pavo Pavo, Tyler, The Creator, Burna Boy, Dangermouse & Karen O, Bon Iver, Leif Vollebeck).

In the end, I chose these fifteen and strung them together into a one-hour mix that represents my year of music pretty well. Download it as one long mp3, or try the Spotify version, or Google Play version if you prefer.

Below is the track listing, a favorite lyric from each song, and my thoughts about each song. Let me know what you think!

1. Fool’s Game – Glen Hansard
“I’m taking it with you and no other”
I first started to really appreciate Glen Hansard after listening to his incredibly good tribute to Jason Molina, the EP “It Was Triumph We Once Proposed… Songs of Jason Molina.” Early this year, Hansard released “Fool’s Game” as an advance single for his album, “The Wild Willing.” I just love the epic and surprising journey this song takes me on. Each time the swell comes, it arrests me and takes me with it, spitting me out at the end, and soothing me with soft sounds and a voice singing words I can’t decipher, but I do understand.

2. Don’t Know How to Keep Loving You – Julia Jacklin
“What if I cleaned up? what if I worked on my skin?”
I have to mention Jason Molina again because it struck me one day as I listened on repeat—this Julia Jacklin song evokes a lot of what is so great about Magnolia Electric Co. records. It comes brimming with tension and energy, teetering on the edge of something. A superb rock song. What an amazing voice (the whole record is worth a listen).

3. What It Is – Angel Olsen
“You just wanted to forget, you just wanted to forget.”
Angel Olsen took her songwriting and sound to the next level on “All Mirrors.” The entire album is really special. I was fortunate enough to see her and her phenomenal band at The Riviera this year—one of those shows where the songs take on new, subtle layers of glory that make subsequent listens all the more enjoyable.

4. Every Woman – Vagabon
“We reserve the right to be full, when we’re on our own.”
I first heard Vagabon as the opener for Angel Olsen. “Every Woman” captures most what i liked about that live show: a unique voice and lots bubbling below the surface.

5. The Way That You Feel – Leif Vollebekk
“You took me where I want to go, to the way that you feel.”
I’m a huge Leif Vollebekk fan, and his new record, “New Ways,” is everything I hoped it would be. It was difficult to pick just one song from the record, because almost all of them are special to me in some way. Even now i’m second guessing myself (Hot tears? Blood Brother? I’m not your Lover?). I saw Leif play at Lincoln Hall and the music and performance was just out of this world. The players were excellent, and the songs tugged every heartstring available and some that I didn’t even know existed. I highly recommend the record and the live show.

6. Ministry – Karen O & Danger Mouse
“Make me crystal clear, cast my heart anew.”
I got hooked on this record on the first listen. The grooves and music themes that get built on and reflected throughout the record make this one of my go-to records for Sunday mornings or chill evenings. This is a great collaboration, and for me the record is more compelling than what either artist typically produces on their own.

7. HIGHEST IN THE ROOM – Travis Scott
“Hope I make it outta here.”
This is my guilty pleasure of the year. I have listened to this one song more than any other and I really can’t stop. Mike Dean production FTW. Hope I make it outta here.

8. Dangote – Burna Boy
Burna Boy’s “African Giant” is a complete jam. It became my go-to selection for morning workouts and late night pinball sessions alike. It’s nearly impossible not to move your body to these songs. I picked “Dangote” for this list because for months whenever it came on I’d run over to my phone to see which track it was (but could never remember!). “Anybody” from the same record is another one to seek out.

9. EARFQUAKE – Tyler, The Creator
“I just need some confirmation on how you feel, for real”
“Igor” is another one of my most played albums this year (another top pick for morning workouts and downtown walks). The production, lyricism, and performances throughout are some of the best in hip-hop. EARFQUAKE is the most obvious single, but i could have picked any number of songs for this list.

10. Mystery Hour – Pavo Pavo
“I’m designed to be unsatisfied”
This song pushes all of my buttons. Layers and layers of fuzzy clouds of sound. Vocals, like two birds soaring above, weaving a path through the mist. Sadly, shortly after releasing this album, Pavo Pavo split up. I’ll never get to see a live show, but i’m thankful for the two great records they let into this world.

11. Flower Moon (feat. Steve Lacy) – Vampire Weekend
“It was the right place, wrong time. Another night at the borderline.”
My favorite song of my favorite record this year. If I didn’t have a self-imposed rule of only including one song per artist, there would be at least four Vampire Weekend songs on this list. “Father of the Bride” is, in my opinion, the best produced, best arranged, simply the best record of this year. The songs and melodies are catchy, and there’s a depth to the lyricism and the arrangements that makes my love for this record grow with each subsequent listen. On my trip to Colorado this September, I had this record playing on repeat through the mountains, and each time I listened I heard something subtle and new. “Flower Moon” is particularly great. The vocal harmonies, the horns, the percussion, the groove. The MAGIC.

12. Nina – Crumb
“Nothing makes much sense you’ll see.”
A turned me on to this moody, subtle, atmospheric record. Another go-to pick for Sunday morning breakfast making soundtracks, and chill evenings painting in my studio.

13. Naeem – Bon Iver
“And I cannot seem to carry this all.”
The high point of another stellar record that got lots and lots of studio/workshop/driving play this year. It took me a couple of listens to connect with these songs and the overall approach to the arrangements and production. Part of me still pines for the Bon Iver of old, the bearded porch-sitting aesthetic I so love. But these songs (Naeem included) retain deep veins of that essence while presenting as something completely different. The lyrics are still revealing and hiding in equal parts, evoking emotional response in fragments—but this time the fragments are elevated by the mastery of creative arrangement and production. The heart and soul of this song is Vernon’s vocal delivery and the delicate connections in sound and words. This song brings tears to my eyes nearly every time I hear it.

14. Come Home (feat. André 3000) – Anderson .Paak
“No one even begs anymore.”
Andre 3000 delivers one of the best performances ever in his guest verse. That alone is enough to put it on the list, but the rest of the song, and Anderson .Paak’s smooth soul delivery throughout makes it a sweet, sweet, song to listen to, and listen to again. One more time?

15. All My Happiness Is Gone – Purple Mountains
“No way to last out here like this for long.”
David Berman dropped this amazing record, then promptly left us. I don’t have the words to write about it, the song is enough.


mix: twenty from eighteen

From 2004 to 2008 it was my habit to make a compilation of the twenty best songs I heard first during that year. After nearly ten years off, the music I heard in 2018 inspired me enough to put the work into making a new mix. This year, rather than linking each mp3 individually I’ve decided to present it as a single mp3 (link removed in 2020, contact me if you’d like a copy).

As i was whittling the list down from about 80 contenders, I noticed that lyrics played a big role in what made the cut. 2018 has been a rough year for me, full of change and hardships as well as personal leaps. Nearly all of these songs are ones that resonated with my emotional landscape in some way, and I find every one of these songs sonically engaging. The track-list below includes my favorite lyric from each song.

I hope you’ll download and listen and tell me what you think.

Listen to “twenty from eighteen” on spotify

1. The Man Who Has Everything – Chance the Rapper
“please, man, we need some freeze pops”

2. Need A Little Time – Courtney Barnett
“I’m sorry that I lost my patience. you deserve better, It’s true”

3. The Return – Logic
“And all that superficial shit you love I’m just not into”

4. everything (feat. The-Dream & Kanye West) – Nas
“See cause you’ve never been the same as anyone else, don’t think the same as everyone else”

5. Lifting You – Michael Blume
“You gotta trust your insides, you gotta fuck with your own shine”

6. These Days – Manwolves
“I am getting so tough, but it’s getting so rough”

7. Loading Zones – Kurt Vile
“Cause I walk the beat like I’m the mayor of some god-forsaken town”

8. Thinking About Leaving – Mooneye
“I’ve seen it all before my eyes”

9. C’est La Vie No.2 – Phosphorescent
“I don’t wait up for days for your voice to answer to me no more.”

10. Fall Apart – Scott Orr
“I still feel like i did when we were just starting out”

11. If The Car Beside You Moves Ahead – James Blake
“as much as it feels as though (as though) your dead (dead)”

12. Fly – Low
“I don’t know, and I don’t mind”

13. Cómo Me Quieres – Khruangbin

14. Quand on arrive en ville – Fhin
“On prend tout c’qu’on peut prend en attendant, Quand on arrive en”

15. Nanã – Polo & Pan

16. What the Hell – So Percussion

17. Pay No Mind – Beach House
“Not dumber just a little bit older”

18. Gonna Love Me – Teyana Taylor
“I’m sorry if I made you feel less than you are”

19. Parking Lot – Anderson .Paak
“Alone in my own thoughts, enough is enough”

20. Reborn – KIDS SEE GHOSTS
“Had so much on mind, i didn’t know where to go”

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