What can a white, heterosexual, cisgender male do? Listen.

This past week has been loud.

Our entrance into the Gilded Phage erupted in protests, violence, and hate speech, while Twitter fights, Facebook rants, and, most vital, thoughtful blog posts remain at pre-Election levels. Voices are still reaching the cheap seats as dire warnings of an encroaching wave of racism and bigotry are met with caustic dismissals demanding people “Wait and see” and “Stop whining.” It’s a wall of sound that would make Phil Spector tumescent.

This election proved one thing: there are a lot of white, heterosexual, cisgender males in this country, and despite assertions that they are the new oppressed minority, they remain both the most powerful and vocal force in American politics. As a member of that demographic, I have never felt so dismayed to be so visible.

For the last year, ever since I completed 10 Cities, I’ve been largely silent. Up until last week, this website had gone dark and I had minimized my Facebook presence (I’ve remained somewhat active on Twitter; my apologies). I’ve been practicing a skill that doesn’t come naturally to me: Listening.

Listening to voices that aren’t white, heterosexual, cisgender, and/or male is critical for the continued growth of our society and for our growth as individuals. We only need look at last Tuesday to know what’s at stake when we don’t.

One of the ways I’ve been reminding myself to be a better listener is intentionally seeking out voices that wouldn’t naturally enter my sphere of interests. As a white, heterosexual, cisgender male, I’m striving to engage with the points of view of those who aren’t. I’ve not intentionally avoided or ignored those voices in the past, but by nature of our societal structure, I’ve done it all the same.

So far, this endeavor has had the greatest impact in my consumption of art, particularly music and literature. I’ve read assault narratives and about rape culture (Alice Sebold and Kate Harding), read fiction from people of color (Colson Whitehead and Zadie Smith; Zadie pisses me off because her first novel is just so damn good) as well as non-American authors (Arturo Perez-Reverte). I’ve read many other authors (including plenty of white males) this last year, but I hope to find even more diverse voices next year. 

Additionally, and to a much greater extent, I’ve been listening to a more varied slate of musical artists. My musical taste has always been eclectic, but my go-tos have generally been white, straight dudes. It seems like a trivial thing because it’s an easy thing; I love music and I love finding new artists. And yet, as easy as it is to do, it still had to be a conscious choice. Ultimately, that minimum effort to expand my palate has been deeply enriching.

To that end, I’m concluding this post with a by-no-means-exhaustive list of artists who are not white, or not male, or not straight, or not cisgender. The list could expand indefinitely, but these just happen to be some that I’ve come to really appreciate over the last year and who, importantly, offer a broader perspective.

And, finally, to my fellow white, heterosexual, cisgender males: There’s no prize for listening, no pat on the back; there’s just the pleasant reality that so many voices deserve our attention and we are invariably enriched by the simple experience of hearing a new perspective.

I hope you enjoy the music and that you’ll keep listening.

Gallant – Episode

Against Me! – Black Me Out

Tegan and Sara – Boyfriend

Lydia Loveless – Midwestern Guys

Solange – Don’t Touch My Hair

5 Songs I’m Loving Now – 08/03/15

For what will be my last 5 Songs of the project, I’m listing a small selection of songs that have been very important to me over the length of the last decade. These are the songs that I discovered in one of the 10 cities and haven’t let go of since.

Neko Case – Star Witness

I feel like I write about this song once every six months, which makes it the perfect choice to kick off this list. I first heard it on a Paste Magazine compilation (back when they had a print edition) while I lived in Charlotte, but it wasn’t ’til I was living in Philadelphia and working for that infamous store that I got my hands on the full album, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. I loved that album as well as each of Case’s subsequent releases, but when it comes down to it, “Star Witness” is still the song that has my heart. Beautiful, sad and stark, it’s Case at her absolute best.

The National – Slow Show

Like Neko Case, I was introduced to the National through the Paste music sampler, and I have similarly been obsessed with all of their music ever since. Although their song “Fake Empire” first grabbed my attention, it was “Slow Show,” the romantic centerpiece of the excellent Boxer, that cemented the band as my go-to band for sad sack moments of quiet desperation, of which I’ve had many over the years. And even though the age 29 has come and gone, and thus I will never be able to post these lyrics on Facebook for a lover, it still remains one of my favorite paeans to longing and desire.

Mirah – Don’t Die In Me

I was introduced to Mirah by my college girlfriend’s roommate, and though I haven’t followed her career all that much lately, there was a brief period in which I was fairly obsessed with her music. Her devotees might tell me she’s released better albums since C’Mon Miracle and I’d be willing to accept that, but nothing is going to change how I feel about “Don’t Die In Me.” For years, this was my poetry-writing-song. There was just something in the abstractness of the lyrics mixed with the directness of the music that inspired me. Even now, when it comes on I’m washed over with memories and a fuzzy feeling of loss, the sense that the past is past and I can only march forward.

The Decemberists – The Engine Driver

The first person I became friends with in Charlotte has remained one of my best friends throughout this whole decade. In that first year of my project, she and I exchanged essentially our entire music collections. I had the entire libraries of Radiohead, Ryan Adams and probably a bunch of Christian artists I rarely listen to anymore. She had a whole slew of indie bands that Pitchfork loved then hated then loved again (and probably now hate), including one of the most divisive artists under the “indie” banner, the Decemberists. Even as the band has lost their ‘hip’ cred, they’ve remained a favorite. And yes, “The Engine Driver” is a cheesy song for a writer (of fictions) to list as one of his essentials, but there it is. No shame: It’s over the top and excessively romantic and that’s all I want from my PNW folk music. Deal with it.

The Mountain Goats – No Children

Bleak as shit? You bet your ass. Kind of heartbreaking? Certainly. Filled with uncensored expressions of humanity? Absolutely. This may be the quintessential Mountain Goats song, so be warned if this is your first experience of them. By no means do I want to suggest that this is their definitive sound as each album has its own vibe and unique sensibilities (and themes, usually), but this exemplifies what John Darnielle does best: Craft unflinching portraits of the darker side of life. In the context of the album, Tallahassee‘s, longer narrative, “No Children” is one of many rough chapters in the lives of a couple whose marriage and lives are falling apart. Out of context, it comes off like the ultimate ode to shitty relationships. However it is experienced, “No Children” reveals a sad truth: Sometimes the person we’re closest with is the one who is doing us the most harm.

Fox Confessor Brings The Flood

5 Songs I’m Loving Now – 04/10/15

Death Cab for Cutie – No Room In Frame

The newest Death Cab album, Kintsugi, is getting mixed reviews, which is pretty much par for the course for latter day DCFC (or, really, any once critically beloved band), but for my money this is their most thoroughly enjoyable album since Plans. There’s a darkness throughout the album – reflecting Ben Gibbard’s recent divorce from Zooey Deschanel – and that’s exactly what was needed to rejuvenate the band (sorry, Ben). For that reason, “No Room in Frame” is the perfect opener, a bitter kiss off to a lover who is too enamored with her own fame and public appearance to allow room for him. It’s biting, incisive and tinged with hurt, like every great Death Cab song should be. Oh yeah, it’s catchy, too.

The Mountain Goats – Heel Turn 2

Last year, John Darnielle released Wolf in White Van, his first novel. Well, technically his first novel, because in reality most of his albums are so full of details and painfully true characters that it feels like I’ve been reading Darnielle books for years. When the most recent Mountain Goats release, Beat The Champ, was announced, I was a little skeptical: an entire album about wrestling? Well, no shock, Darnielle managed to take a subject I couldn’t care less about and find the pathos and humanity in it. “Heel Turn 2” is the centerpiece of the album, and besides for having his trademark lyrical vulnerability, it makes a genuine left turn halfway through the song: The vocals disappear and all that’s left is gorgeous, haunting piano work. In a career built on unexpected maneuvers, there’s really only one thing you can count on from Darnielle: Beautiful music.

Sufjan Stevens – Fourth of July

If you’re seeing a pattern with these choices this time, there’s a reason for that. This has been a flat out phenomenal year for music so far. I feel spoiled. Not only are some of my favorite artists releasing music, but none have disappointed. Sufjan Stevens came out of hiding with Carrie & Lowell last month, and man does it pack an emotional wallop. Sonically, the album is probably his least varied creation so far – mostly unadorned vocals and piano or guitar with lilting atmospheric tones floating behind him. Yet, each song evokes very specific emotions, like the devastating “Fourth of July” (which brings to mind another holiday song by Stevens, “Casimir Pulaski Day”). If I had any nitpicks with this album, it’s that it was released 3 months too late. This is clearly winter music.

Damien Rice – I Don’t Want To Change You

Dropping back to last year (only because I already mentioned the Decemberists in my last entry in this series), I have to give a shout out to Damien Rice’s lovely return from exile, “My Favourite Faded Fantasy.” Rice vanished after his last, not-quite-critically beloved album, 9. Folksinger with a guitar is always going to risk being a little too ‘soft rock’ for the critics, and admittedly some of his lyrics can be a bit ponderous. But Rice’s gift has always been in the gut-punch manner his songs connect both the saddest and happiest parts of love in one moment. In that way, “I Don’t Want to Change You” is classic Damien and a stand out track on an album that constantly reminds me why I used to listen to O night after night in my college years.


And finally…


Number 5…

Taylor Swift – Style

Hate if you must (must you?). Question my manhood (you wouldn’t be the first). Think Taylor Swift is annoying (eh) or a bad singer (eh) or has lousy legs (I will fight you to the death), but it doesn’t matter. I could pretend otherwise, but the truth is, I can’t get enough of this song. I thought “Shake It Off” was catchy, I enjoyed the self-deprecating wit of “Blank Space,” but “Style” is where TSwift (I promise I will never write that again) hits it out of the park. I’ve made no secret of my affection for pure pop gold, and that’s what she’s managed to create here. It’s easy to hate Taylor Swift when she’s talking about life in New York City or saying stupid, 14-year-old girl shit in interviews. It’s a whole lot harder to hate her when she just lets the music play (and, also when she’s wearing a “tight little skirt”).


5 Songs I’m Loving Now – 01/26/15

The Decemberists – Lake Song

A new Decemberists album is definitely cause for celebration. Whether it’s through the music, the lyrics or just the pure spirit of showmanship that they bring to their craft, Colin Meloy and the rest of the band always produce something special. What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World doesn’t have the cohesiveness of their best album, The Crane Wife, nor does it quite reach the emotional highs of most recent release, The King Is Dead, but it’s still an endearing addition to their catalog. Like their first albums, there are a lot of stylistic shifts throughout, most of them quite fun, but the Decemberists’ have always excelled at straightforward, heartfelt ballads, which is what makes “Lake Song” one of the standout tracks on this solid album. Delicate, affecting, and typically literate, this is what a love song should be.

Sia – Chandelier (Piano Version)

The original album version of this track is excellent (as is the video), but it was hearing the acoustic piano version of this song (on the sadly departed sitcom, Selfie) that revealed to me both how stunning the vocal performance is and the heft of the lyrics. Few pop songs hit with this kind of emotional resonance, an exquisitely heartbreaking account of losing one’s self (and pain) in a night’s debauchery. This is the track that makes the argument that Sia is not only one of our finest pop song writers, she is a bona fide pop star.

José González – Stay Alive

Found on the soundtrack of a movie I never saw, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, this soothing song sees José González stretching his sound, with his normal acoustic guitar replaced by piano and an incessant, enveloping cymbal build. González didn’t write this song, which isn’t much of a surprise since his biggest “hits” have almost all been covers. That the songwriter is Ryan Adams, though, does explain why I fell in love with this track almost immediately. This is the kind of track that Adams can write in his sleep, so it’s fun to hear another artist take it and make it his own. I don’t know if the Ben Stiller-starring movie was any good, but at least it resulted in this gorgeous collaboration, so that’s something.

The Stills – Retour a Vega

I have no idea how I came to be in possession of this track by the Toronto-based band, The Stills, but it’s been getting heavy rotation for the last few months. Sung completely in French (title translates to “Return to Vega”), the melody has a floating, graceful ease that lifts up the otherwise plaintive vocals. Even without Google Translating the lyrics, you get the sense that the singer is missing a girl. But after all, aren’t all songs about missing a girl?

Kanye West – Power

Is this guy annoying? Sure. Is he an over the top egotist? Absolutely. Does he still write some flat out killer tracks? Can’t deny that. How great is “Power”? It was the song that came on the radio as I drove into New York City on my first day of my 10th year and there couldn’t have been a better song for the moment. Almost all rappers put out boast tracks, but hardly any of them do it with as much style and swagger as Kanye. If you don’t get pumped up listening to those propulsive chants and crashing rhythm, you may have a fatal case of Stick-In-Ass Syndrome. Better get that checked out.

What a Terrible World

5 Songs I’m Loving Now – 10/22/14

Haim – If I Could Change Your Mind

I seriously considered doing one of these posts with all 5 songs from this band. Haim’s (pronounced like ‘time’) debut album has gotten near constant rotation since I found it a few months ago, and it’s because these 3 sisters spit out perfect harmonies like they were the genetic clones of Brian Wilson and Fleetwood Mac. Constant references to bands of the 60s and the 70s are inevitable with this group, and they certainly don’t seem to want to shy away from those comparisons with their fashion and videos. But it doesn’t matter whose sound they’re aping when they’re doing it so damn well. Honestly, this is probably my 5th or 6th favorite song on the album and it’s still worthy of repeat listens. The album isn’t dead, these ladies proved that.

Spoon – Inside Out

In what is turning out to be one of the best years for albums in nearly a decade, Spoon has once again put out a collection that has a lock on top 10 status. Is there a band whose output is more consistent than these guys? It’s hard to pick a favorite song off of They Want My Soul, but it’s hard to argue with “Inside Out” as a top contender. It’s the perfect mash of Spoon’s best traits, with its persistent, insistent beat, airy instrumentation and Britt’s ethereal voice floating over all of it. Watch out for the day this band puts out a bad album: That’s the apocalypse.

Warpaint – Billie Holiday

This band has been working the cool indie circuit for a few years now, but I only first heard them about a month ago. It was this lovely, eerie track (which reworks the classic R&B torch song, “My Guy”) that caught my attention when it played on some random blog I stumbled across. Hey, apparently those automatic playlists aren’t always the worst. I appreciate a song that hides emotional vulnerability under a cool veneer, and that’s exactly what these women get right here. Give it a listen, it’ll creep up on you.

Ryan Adams – Kim

Ryan can rock. He really can. But let’s face it, most of us fell in love with him because he does sad sack better than anyone. So here’s another moper for the collection, off of his frequently excellent self-titled album released this year. Ryan’s probably got enough songs with women’s names for titles to surpass most other artists’ entire catalogs. Well, “Kim” is yet another femme fatale, and if the emotion in the way he sings, “Ooh, Kim,” is any indication, this one is particularly fatal. Good, we like our boy a little messed up (even while we wish him and Mandy all the best).

Philip Selway – Coming Up For Air

It’s rare that the solo album from a member of a great band is worth a damn. Even rarer when we’re not talking about the lead singer or even the multi-instrumentalist genius, but the drummer. Yet Philip Selway of Radiohead has managed to produce a moody bit of beauty with his second album, Weatherhouse. The opening track, “Coming Up For Air” is the clear standout (though it’s not alone), showcasing Portishead-esque atmospherics in support of haunting, somber lyrics. I guess they aren’t lying when they say Radiohead music is a full-band affair. (For the record, Thom Yorke’s solo album is also excellent, but he doesn’t allow his music on sharing services so I couldn’t feature any of his songs.)

Philip Selway - Weatherhouse

5 Songs I’m Loving Now – 03/09/14

Nicole Atkins – Girl You Look Amazing

With that funky, propulsive baseline and Nicole Atkins’ sultry vocals, this song has an air of 70s-era Fleetwood Mac, though it still feels thoroughly modern in all the best ways. Atkins has been putting out impressive albums ever since her debut, Neptune City. She has the vocal, lyrical and musical ability to set her apart from the vast majority of pop artists, but her hooks never suffer for it. She’s like a less-Asperger-y St. Vincent (no offense). Plus, watch the video, she clearly has a sense of humor. If you like this song, check out the rest of her work, including her new album Slow Phaser.

Beck – Blue Moon

Remember Beck? He’s back… In Sea Change form. Beck is an institution. Ever since his 90s hit song “Loser,” he’s established himself as a talented, eclectic smartass. But, besides for being everyone’s favorite Scientologist (probably the only favorite Scientologist), his 2002 heartbreak of an album, Sea Change, revealed a quieter, deeper yet no less melodic side of the songwriter. Saying that Morning Phase is the spiritual successor of that album has gotten cliché, and it’s a bit misleading. Whereas Sea Change felt like a throwback to classic singer/songwriter break-up albums of the 70s and 80s, Morning Phase expresses it’s melancholy with a mixture of old-school instrumentation and electronic ambiance. If you’re a fan of the former album, you’ll love this, but if you found Sea Change to be too sad sack for your tastes, the new album, with standout track “Blue Moon,” offers some surprises that make it worth your time.

Trevor Hall – Unity

On the surface, this song should annoy me. It’s white boy reggae (not that you would know it by the voice) about God or god and how all religions lead to the same truth; oh so New Age-y. I’d like to just dismiss this song, but damn if it isn’t one hell of an earworm. It sticks in your head the way all the best reggae songs can, and it does so without sounding completely derivative. I’ve honestly not listened to anything else by this guy, mostly because it isn’t a genre of music I spend much time listening to. But if he had an album of songs as good as this, I could definitely see myself blasting it on a hot summer’s day. And, as far as spiritual messages go, I guess I can appreciate one that says ‘Stop fighting about God, all belief is the same.’ I’d just go a bit further and say, ‘So you don’t need any of it.’

Mansions – Two Suits

My buddy John drums for this group, which sounds like I’m just foisting a friend on you. But I mean it when I say this band is damn good, both on record and in their powerful live show. They fall into that hard to define genre known as “Math Rock,” and on Twitter they’re self-described as complaint-rock, but who needs labels? “Two Suits” was the first song on their excellent Doom Loop album to grab my attention with its slow build towards an eruption and the closing male/female vocal call-and-response that feels downright menacing even if I don’t have a clue what the hell “It’s 80 fucking dollars” is all about. When a song is this explosive, does it really matter?

Queen – Don’t Stop Me Now

What am I going to say? It’s Queen. Freddie Mercury has never and will never be replaced. Adam Lambert and fun. can try their best, but every rock singer will always live in the shadow of this man. I don’t consider myself a ‘rock’ guy all that much, as the genre tends to lack subtlety, but if you put on some Queen I will air guitar with the best of them (and have well into the night). The music of Queen is the Platonic Ideal of Rock Music. Is there anyone out there who doesn’t have at least one favorite Queen song? I didn’t think so. I’m not sure I’d say “Don’t Stop Me Now” is my favorite, but it’s the one I’ve been listening to a lot lately. And that’s the whole point of these posts. Now then, where is my spandex?