Squaresville Sounds Pretty Cool: A Best Of for 2015


Inspired by my Japanese apostle, John Mark Mullan, back in the mid-2000s my friends and I started an annual tradition called the Best Ofs. It is not unique but it is special. We reflect on the year through the music we have discovered and we make selections, mix-tapes, and in one very fine contribution, an entire movie. The CD was still dominant when we began and it sets the terms of the project still, a lovely evolving testimony to the fact that we are no longer young. So the rules are as follows:

  • The mix must be less than 80 minutes.
  • It must be more than a minute.
  • Artists can repeat.
  • Songs can be from any era, but just new to you in the last year.
  • Any and all genres are welcome.
  • Crazy ass remixes/mash-ups of familiar songs from long ago count as new
  • You can submit detailed supplementary content or just raw audio or anything in between.
  • You can post us all CDs, make a Spotify playlist, or distribute the files on A4 pages hidden around a local forest – whatever way you think gets the best balance between ease for you (the compiler) and ease for us (the listener). But we have a special dropbox if you want to keep things simple.
  • Anyone invited can feel free to invite others, because the Best of Project is a great way for friends to meet friends’ friends.

When I Think Back On 2015

So when I reflect on the last year I mostly think about books and the battles I wage with them. I have become ever more short-sighted, balding, grey-haired and troubled as I wrestle with my thesis and moving on from the purgatorial grey of Aberdeen. My writing becomes ever more obtuse. My conversation ever more arcane. I was never with it, and they may well have changed what it was, but right now I am definitively square. Marge Simpson is my spirit animal. Hence:

I do not have the skill or courage to write a retrospective of my year that is true or insightful. I do have the songs that resonated with me, which reveal that more than any year in my life thus far, I have been consumed with thoughts about God and life and how thoughts about God are not the same as faith and thoughts about life is not the same as living. The songs are sad or angry and only in one example deliriously triumphant. And that example is a theme tune to a TV show, so that says a lot about the state of my soul, right?

Still, I like to think in my thought and in my words, in what I have done and what I have failed to do, that I am not a morose person. I aspire to be guileless like Marge and so even if life in the TheoLab is very much square, I’m happy there, even if I still look into cameras as if they are about to ask me a question I don’t understand:

TheoLab ahoy!

Squaresville Sounds Pretty Cool

So these are the songs that made it into my best of. In the version I will upload to the project, it comes in at 77 minutes and 44 seconds. So listening to it takes a commute to work and back again, probably.

This is the album cover, which is an image from the artist Ryoji Ikeda:

Squaresville Sounds Pretty Cool

Here’s a YouTube playlist:


Here’s the tracklisting:

  1. The Decemberists – A Beginning Song:
    For various reasons, as the end of 2015 collapses on us, I have a growing suspicion while sitting in the Concrete Bunker that 2016 is going to be a decisive year for our little family. So the song that closes the Decemberists album opens mine, because in 2016, whether we like it or not, the next chapter begins.
  2. Dawes – All Your Favorite Bands:
    Wife-unit’s advice for making mix-tapes is complex and nuanced, but I boiled it down to: “Start strong, but follow it up with the home-run.” This is my single favourite song of the year. Its gentle guitar riff runs through my head constantly and the spirit of friendship and hope that it extols is both deeply resonant and comforting to me.
  3. Courtney Barnett – Pedestrian at Best:
    The jury was out for a long time on this Antipodean sensation. Wife-unit instantly warmed to the 1990s production style, and it definitely tickled my nostalgia for an adolescence full of wordy female songstresses. But in the end, the most raucous track on the album lingered in my memory.
  4. Kendrick Lamar – i:
    I did not wait with bated breath for the Kendrick Lamar album but when it arrived, it was overwhelming. Often it is hard to listen to because there is so much for black Americans to be furious about. Lamar, especially here, is a compelling voice in the midst of that injustice. This song is so damn good.
  5. Blackalicious – I Like The Way You Talk:
    I did wait with bated breath for the Blackalicious album. I waited ten freaking years for it. And when it arrived I was positively underwhelmed. I just built it up too much, I suppose. It’s an odd album because when I play it all at once it is almost anonymous and frequently annoying. But taken on their own the songs are great. Maybe I’ll revise my opinion as the months go by. That’s often the case with me; I am so naturally unmusical that the best stuff often takes a long time to settle in my ears.
  6. Sleater Kinney – Price Tag:
    There’s a famous Portlandia sketch where Carrie and Fred inadvertently open a sweatshop in their basement. This could be a soundtrack for that. But it is one of the most rocking of the album’s tracks (they almost all rock) and I love it because studying wealth and capitalism for the last few years, I am convinced that it is impossible to shop ethically. Best to scream about that than just lie down and accept it, right?
  7. Oh Pep! – Tea, Milk & Honey:
    Like other people in the group, I go to NPR Tiny Desk Concert to find new music regularly and that is where I found these great Australian chaps. This is such a lovely love song. The voices are unostentiously soaring and the person speaking to us through the lyrics has such humble adoration for their partner. “She sings like a church with a choir in it.”
  8. Craig Finn – Sarah, Calling From a Hotel:
    Craig Finn is my favourite song writer. Now that The Hold Steady are on indefinite hiatus, I am consoled that he seems dedicated to his solo career (although I’d swap it all for a novel from him!). No one tells a story like him and this song demonstrates that. This song is terrifying. “Oh God, I’ve gotta go.”
  9. Sufjan Stevens – John My Beloved:
    The last two Sufjan albums were not beloved, but they get more playtime from me with every passing year. I was expecting that whatever would happen with Sufjan’s new album, I would have to take a lot of time to get used to it. I was wrong. We all were wrong. Carrie and Lowell is a stone cold masterpiece and I could have just listed all the songs and then drawn this mix to an end. Instead I basically chose the two I chose at random.
  10. The Gregory Brothers – Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Theme Tune:
    Certain things run constantly through my mind. Passages from Isaiah. Old Wesleyan hymns. Thomas Hardy poetry. My brain rarely rests, unless I sleep, in which case, it is busy making crap up but thankfully I rarely remember dreams. Now, new this year, the “Unbreakable! She alive damnit!” of this theme tune intrudes on my consciousness a dozen times a day. Making coffee in the morning. In the middle of a sensitive, pastoral conversation at work. Wrestling invading ninjas. At the most inopportune times this song breaks in with its exultant surprise and I submit to it. So now you’ll have to as well.
  11. Kendrick Lamar – King Kunta:
    The week after the Charleston murders, I was in America with my bumchum Taido. We were in Princeton at a fancy conference that drew hundreds of top scholars and students from around America and around the world. In the evenings, we’d go hang out with our friends Matt and Evie and that was a hands-down highlight of the year. Matt drove us around Trenton, the underworld that makes Princeton possible. He invited us to a prayer walk being held in remembrance of the victims of the attack, starting at the local AME church and winding its way through Princeton until it stopped with prayer and song and speech in the square in the centre of the town. We told the organisers of the conference and suggested they call off their evening schedule. “Think of how awesome it would be for these Christians if hundreds of their brethren from around the world joined with them, pausing their business to do the more important work of prayer?” They didn’t agree. A famous and much revered bishop was due to speak and they were not about to sideline him. “Besides,” we were told, “we shouldn’t miss his speech because it is so funny; it’s basically stand-up!” We skipped the ecclesial comedy (which was most certainly tragedy) and went to pray in the town. Who am I to have an opinion on the cultures I do not inhabit but it seems to me that America’s racism is more deeply embedded than the toolkit of the white Ivy League elites can ever hope to reach. Lamar was again an educator for me. Cutting the legs off the slave is not a thing of the past.
  12. Josh Ritter – Getting Ready To Get Down:
    Ritter is one of those people who I am meant to like. So many of my friends love him but I could never get into him, even though Ian Tracy had a brilliant track from him on one of his Best Ofs years and years ago. But his rockabilly Gospel record was great fun and how could I turn down a song about how, very often, studying the Scriptures distances us from the faithful and that spoke of “Just another damn of the damns not given”?
  13. Torres – Sprinter:
    I read Torres’ music described as arena rock for abandoned arenas and I think that is wonderfully descriptive. The songs are smart and long-arched and loud. This song, like so many in this collection, is haunted by the attraction of Jesus and the impossibility of the church. It is autobiographical, I suspect. It is definitely true.
  14. Will Butler – Son Of God:
    If pressed to explain how much I loved Sufjan’s Carrie & Lowell, I’d say it is my favourite album since Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs. The Arcade Fire are among my very favourites and so the first solo album by Will Butler was bound to get a lot of my attention. This song is again about Jesus and ethics. Squaresville central.
  15. Vandaveer – However Many Takes It Takes:
    After that big fancy conference, Taido and I spent a weekend in New York, wearing holes in our shoes as we sprinted around the place. The first night there, after a heavenly dinner on a park bench in Union Square, we went to the Bowery Ballroom to see a band for whom Vadaveer supported. Vandaveer were better and this – yet another Squaresville tune about searching for salvation but not finding it – is my favourite of their songs.
  16. Sufjan Stevens – Drawn to the Blood:
    One of the (many) reasons Christianity is so deeply bloodless in the West is that it is presented as a solution to a problem. Lonely? Find community at church! Guilt-ridden? Find serenity in the liturgy! Nihilistic? Find meaning in the Gospel! These are half-truths and full lies. When the God of Elijah is your lover, life does not suddenly have meaning. Guilt does not suddenly lessen its grip. Loneliness does not magically stop stalking. The lyrics of this song fall away half way through but the story it tells swells on. Sufjan is putting aural shape around the stumbling that faith in the West in this age consists of.
  17. Alessia Cara – Here:
    An introvert’s anthem.
  18. John Moreland – Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars:
    I discovered this guy in early November and I basically haven’t stopped listening to his album since then. This is basically a thesis-statement-song for Squaresville: “Life will make you homesick for a home you’ve never had.”
  19. Jason Isbell – 24 Frames:
    I suspect Isbell was the most commonly occurring artist in the whole batch of last year’s Best Ofs and his new album is likely to also feature heavily in various playlists. “You thought God was an architect; now you know he’s something like a pipe-bomb ready to blow”? Squaresville: Yet another song about being unable to reconcile the deep mysteries of life’s hardness with the ever-present promises of God.
  20. Glen Hansard – Winning Streak:
    I remember a friend telling me a story about how, as a young musician, he encountered Glen Hansard and the Oscar-winner (who was then not yet a famous Oscar-winner) was a right dick to him. I probably mis-remembered it, knowing me. But the point is that for years I resisted liking Hansard’s music because he had been mean to my friend. In retrospect, that was both petty and self-defeating because Hansard is consistently astonishing. The latest album is his best yet, richly influenced from all over the place and resounding with a realistic hope that at times appears hymnal. This benediction, this good word of a song, is a fitting way to start landing the best-of.
  21. Glen Hansard – Grace Beneath the Pines:
    And this quiet song of resilience is the perfect way to draw the year to a close. Jason Isbell is a man of deep faith, as are many of the songwriters who feature on my list. But the most uplifting songs come from this Dubliner, who lives a few miles from my family home and from what I can gather, has no religion to speak of. However, to whatever extent the word spirituality means anything, Hansard’s songs are immersed in it.

If you want to download the album, this link should work.

Your Correspondent, He could go on talking, or he could stop

Best of Album 2013

While I am heartened that JM is trying to kickstart a blogging renaissance in Ireland, I don’t know if my dozen faithful readers will ever get the service they deserve from Creideamh. After all, I can’t let any of my startlingly original research go out into the public because then it might be disseminated and I won’t get appropriate credit for it in academic journals, while delivering papers at conferences or chatting up girls in nightclubs.

The best use of the blog at this point in the web’s development seems to be as a venue to extend real life conversations. So when I blog quotes from books, I’m really looking forward to sitting down with Declan Kelly over coffee and when I write about shoes for poor children, I’m trying to make sense of my ramblings for Josh. Similarly, tomorrow I might have time to write about films I saw in 2013 and that is in response to a conversation I had with a friend who prudently remains blogless.

But here, instead of giving you a run down of my terrifically hip music listening (dominated in the last month by Christmas.FM and before that by replayed R.E.M. and Hold Steady albums), I shall share with you my mixtape.

Best of cover 2013

In my circle of friends, the Best Of project rotates around the following rules:

    1) Playlists cannot exceed 80 minutes.
    2) Playlists can be as short as you like.
    3) Songs can be from any era but they have to be new for you in 2013.
    4) Artists can be repeated, numerous songs can be taken from the same album.
    5) Any and all genres are welcome, although the less evangelical Christian death metal one can fit on a CD, the happier we’ll all be.
    6) Track listing, specially designed covers, annotated explanations for which songs have appeared and why are encouraged but not in any way necessary.

See how acclimatised I have become to Britain? Everything is more fun with rules!

The album can be downloaded from here.

Each number on the list links to a version of the particular song.

1. Arcade Fire – Normal Person: Lots of people were disappointed by the new Arcade Fire album, including important and relevant cultural commentators such as Noel Gallagher. I think the complaints about it being indulgent are well placed, but some of these songs get deep inside my ears and crucially, make me want to do jittery David Byrne style dancing all around the living room. This song starts the album because it has just that effect. Plus it begins with Win asking, “Do you like rock music? I don’t know if I do?”

2. Vampire Weekend – Unbelievers: The whiteness of this album is firmly established in track 2. Having begun with a Montreal based art collective, I move on to everyone’s favoured recipient of intellectual scoffing. Scoff away my friends, but the third Vampire Weekend also manages to make you want to scoot around the kitchen in your socks. This song is a sort of atheist musing on Pascal’s wager, which is fairly ambitious compared to the average hipster hit single.

3. Dawes – Hey Lover: Moving to Aberdeen has been a tough transition for Wife-Unit and I. The great consolation to me has been the friends I have made. One of the recurring themes running through these songs is how my Aberdonian friends have turned me on to entirely new loads of music. For my first meeting with my PhD supervisor, he took me out for coffee and told me to take a month to just read novels. He also told me about this band. I love this song, even though it requires considerable translation for it to apply to my life. With lyrics like “And when did I decide to grow this beard and gut?”, you really have to stretch it to see what relevance it has for me? After all, I still can’t grow a beard…

4. Trampled By Turtles – Where Is My Mind: At that same meeting, my supervisor introduced me to Tyler Atkinson. Tyler has sadly moved back to America but his music recommendations leave him a fine legacy in the Concrete Bunker. He told me about Trampled By Turtles, who have many fine songs that are not Pixies covers, but when a Pixies cover is better than the original, that has to be recognised in a best-of.

5. Josh Garrels – Rabbit & The Bear: Josh Garrels is the rarest of things; a Christian songwriter I am not ashamed to love. The man is prone to penning lyrics of real beauty and wit. As I read through boring, boring books about the history of the Irish economy, this Francis of Assisi style musing on the beauty of God’s creation always induced a smile. Forgive me while I get preachy (a mode I am in repeatedly on this Best Of) but there is no more beautiful thing to contemplate than that coming Kingdom “Where every creature sings ‘Oh Lord, you rescued us all!'”

6. Gungor – Beautiful Things: And I suppose whatever vestige of coolness has now just drained away because I have followed up one contemporary Christian track with another. Gungor are a bit of a phenomenon in the Christian world but I just discovered them this year. Again, they are renowned for writing songs that Christians aren’t utterly embarrassed to be found listening. Perhaps we should just get over ourselves? But this song passes the test for a song about God that bears re-listening. For one thing, it is about God, not just a projection of our feelings. And while there are more basic and more important things to say about God, the repetition of the truth that He makes beautiful things is a good one. Sing it to yourself while you brush your teeth and before long, you’ll know how to pray.

7. Goat Lonesome – Measure of Things:So I mentioned Tyler Atkinson earlier. Tyler, on top of being a damn fine theologian, was also the best thing about the music scene in Aberdeen, which makes his return to the Carolinas all the more sad for us. He and his Scottish buddy made up “Goat Lonesome”, who gigged around the bars of the city. Tyler wrote his thesis on the Jewish wisdom literature we call Ecclesiastes, which among other things muses on the nature and experience of time. He does an astonishing job of compressing this 2,500 year old piece of practical philosophy into a three minute song.

8. Radiohead – Gagging Order: My brother has to work extensively in China and Japan and sometimes he comes home bearing gifts in the form of obscure releases I’ve never heard of from bands I love. This year I got this Radiohead release called Com Lag and this song is the middle of the album. For a year when society crossed some strange event horizon of anesthetized surveillance, this “Move along, there’s nothing left to see” is haunting.

9. Public Service Broadcasting – Night Mail: “Eight-thirty p.m., weekdays and Sundays, the Down Postal Special leaves Euston for Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen.” So there is an elegant transition (hopefully) to this classic track from a band that composes music around sampled public education filmreels of the past. Since The Simpsons have been skewering public educational efforts for decades, we should all know by now that the point of these films (or the modern versions in the form of gory road safety advertisements and public health advertising on billboards) is not education but discipline. From Gagging Order to Night Mail, we’ve got a sort of musical journey back to where the strange world we now live in began…

10. Frightened Rabbit – State Hospital: … and this song is a portrait of how that weirdness works out in the specific place I now live. My flat is in one of the worst areas of Aberdeen. All around us we see the tangible effect of decades of neo-liberal experimentation on the working class. “A slipped disc in the spine of community … She cries on the high street just to be heard, a screaming anchor for nothing in particular.” I was alerted to Frightened Rabbit by an internet friend who maintains a blog that is worth following called Invisible Foreigner. As Scott Hutchison sings “All is not lost” as a closing refrain, this song can serve as an anthemic companion to the time I’ll live here in Tillydrone.

11. Tegan & Sara – I Was A Fool: This album is getting too heavy. Now is the time for pop music. Tegan & Sara’s very 80s inspired pop record is a triumph. After all that cod-philosophising I just did there, and the theologising before it, very little needs to be said about this song except that it is really good.

12. Miley Cyrus – Wrecking Ball: And the less said about this song, the better. I had not heard the original version and was about to put a cover by London Grammar on this album when Wife-unit advised me to go listen to the Miley version. It is a phenomenally great song. I watched the video too and it made me feel strange in a sour milk sort of way. But Taido stuck One Direction on his best of, so I’m allowed have this, ok?

Wife-unit has just heard this song and come out to lecture me, saying, “Your refusal to listen to radio means you miss out on songs like this!” Perhaps my New Year resolution should be to listen to broadcast radio?

13. The National – Sea of Love: If I stay here in the land of radio pop, trouble will find me. So now we resort back to standard middle-aged person music transmission.

14. Neko Case – Man: But if we’re going to have lots of middle-aged person’s music, let’s make it the cooler variety. Neko Case continued her impeccable career with a superb album. While the heartbreaking “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” could have made the list, to mark a year when I have been thinking extensively about gender and the problems it represents, this is the perfect song.

15. Billy Bragg – There Will Be A Reckoning: I caught myself yesterday describing Bruce Springsteen as “America’s version of Billy Bragg.” If such a thing exists, that probably is a cardinal sin. But Bragg’s album arrived early in 2013 and probably wins the award as my favourite of the year. I could easily have thrown four of his songs on here, but I chose this one because it is true and getting truthier. The UK seems intent on devouring itself with racist fantasies. While London financiers pillage the state, the people are fed dark fairy tales of foreigners robbing their way of life. The self-fulfilling nature of these violent myths of invasion from Bulgarians, Romanians and Muslims is going to incite a conflagration. In the coming year, politicians will have to rediscover ethics or Bragg’s song will move from prophecy into history.

16. Mavis Staples – I Like The Things About Me: Mavis Staples’ new album, produced by that chap from Wilco, is a brilliant piece of modern gospel. If There Will Be A Reckoning is a song that is true about the society in which I live, I Like The Things About Me is a song about the person I am who lives there. I like the things about me that I once despised and I am glad someone wrote a song about that.

17. Everything Everything – Don’t Try: I put Arcade Fire and Vampire Weekend on here. Now I finish with Everything Everything. If only Coldplay had released an album, I could have put the four most hateable bands around on here! Everything Everything seem to annoy a lot of people but I think they are great – smart and witty and catchy. This seems like an excellent way to end the best of. Don’t try to fight it, it will wriggle into your ear eventually.

Album can be accessed here.

Your Correspondent, He built this city on rock and roll

Best Of Music 2011

For the last few Christmases my friends and I have had a tradition whereby we each compile a CD worth of music that we discovered in the previous year as a sort of retrospective and best-of of the year. The music need not be released that year, it just has to be new to you.

The project is really cool because as the years go by, each CD we each make is like a sedimentary layer of our tastes becoming inexorably more middle-aged and less cool. Or alternatively, less self-conscious and more fun. Regardless, you see changes! And you discover the new music that your friends have been loving. My best of this year involves songs that were recorded by friends and songs from the 1930’s so this YouTube playlist is incomplete but a pretty good representation.

Your Correspondent, Hopes to see him bring ’em all back to life