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 bit.ly/goodin10
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)
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
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.