For the past few years, my brother-in-law has been creating playlists of favorite songs that he’s collected throughout the years. Inspired to do the same now that 2018 is in its infancy, I’ve created my own ‘Best of 2017’ playlist. I’ve always cherished the opportunity to share meaningful music with others although doing so comes with a dash of risk under the radar; sometimes the music drifting out of the speakers reveals much about the stirrings inside of the listener.
So with a moderate amount of further ado, I present to you a collection of favorites that I’ve collected over the past year. Songs on this list met at least one of my personal criteria for a replay-able song:
- Groove (typically the first thing that stands out to me)
- Lyrical content
- Overall song craftsmanship
- Catchy hooks and melodies
- Unique story-telling
- Any other unexplainable quality that makes a song resonate with me
You can listen to the entire playlist (currently 32 songs) via Spotify or YouTube at the links below. Note that a few songs existed on one platform and not the other, so there are minor discrepancies between the playlist versions below:
- Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/user/two_hands/playlist/02uPSU7BX0vIO2Gxr2CNSF
- YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ReCMXDgsrgM&list=PLzq8KLPSd4Ac2pDedH6pQympBJAbigILN
These ~40+ song playlists aren’t ordered in any particular fashion so please feel free to enjoy them on shuffle. If you need a place to start, below are 10 of my highlights.
Note: Click on the title of the song to watch/listen directly on YouTube if the embedded player doesn’t work.
1. Morning Nightcap – Lunasa
We spent Christmas and New Year’s with my wife’s side of the family, with whom an expansive variety of artistic interests and talents are represented. Among them is a multi-colored palette of musical tastes, including the Celtic stylings of Lunasa. Songs from one of their albums (The Story So Far) frequently danced throughout the house over the holidays and Morning Nightcap is the first track, whose heroic melodies caught my ears and would not let go.
2. Non-Stop – Lin-Manuel Miranda (from the “Hamilton” soundtrack)
There isn’t much music from theater productions in my library but I’ve been blown away by the genius of songwriting throughout the Hamilton soundtrack. Non-Stop is sufficiently representative of the craftiness with which Lin-Manuel Miranda compiled multiple styles and musical motifs for each representative character into one song. The entire soundtrack is a mind-bogglingly interconnected web of songs, each containing subtle references to the others yet functioning independently (for example: check out Hamilton’s soliloquy at the 1:42 mark in The World Was Wide Enough which stealthily incorporates titles and lyrics from many other songs in the soundtrack). Technical details aside, the song describes Hamilton’s historically documented, fast-paced life-style of learning, composing, and developing ideas born out of high intellect and beliefs that would eventually shape and defend the US Constitution and lay the groundwork for the nation’s financial system.
3. Chalk – Buddy Miller
My oh my…I often find myself considering whether this is the best song I’ve ever heard or not. This is neither a break-up song nor a love song. It seems to stem from that place in between, where both individuals have come to the end of themselves and with helpless glances to the losses behind and the uncertainty ahead, plead “Jesus come and save us from our sins”. Buddy and Julie Miller have managed to craft a song whose lyrics and instrumental components are so accurately married to the overall emotional contour of the story; flickering embers that illuminate that devastatingly sacred place where the strength of humanity is emptied and can only depend upon the deliverance of God.
4. Hear My Heart – Andy Mineo
Andy Mineo is one of my favorite rappers who blends style, flow, and saavy story-telling in every song. Hear My Heart is a beautiful tribute and apology to his deaf sister Grace, with whom he had a distant relationship as a child. Having not bothered to learn sign language when he was younger, Andy and Grace could hardly communicate, resulting in the gap between them that Andy now seeks to bridge. Notice in the music video that Andy accompanies all of his lyrics with sign language and that all of the colorful images give visualization to the music; truly a thoughtful, intimate conveyance of love and reconciliation across the gap between the separate audible and visual languages he and his sister speak.
5. Ants Marching / Ode to Joy – The Piano Guys
Over the past year, my daughter and I have spent a lot of time dancing to music together. She sits on my shoulders while we bounce around to a wide variety of music. This song holds a special place for me as one of the earlier entries on a playlist my wife and I have created to feed her musical palette. The Piano Guys have been making their mark on the music scene for a while now with their creative piano and cello duet covers of pop songs and original compositions, often paired with beautiful music videos such as this one, shot on a spinning stage with a drone-mounted camera. The track itself is a beautiful combination of Dave Matthew’s Ants Marching with segments of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy; a counter-intuitive yet effective pairing.
6. Double Beat – Santa Clara Vanguard (composed by Murray Gusseck)
Ah, the drumline. Nothing packs a punch quite like a group of coordinated percussionists who wield the power of their instruments with flair, finesse, and musicality. I recently rediscovered this song and video but since first hearing it back in 2007, it’s catchy rhythmic groove has never left me. I often find myself subconsciously tapping it out on my knees and tabletops. Give several listens to this song and try to listen to each of the three sections of the drumline individually: the snare drums, tenors (the multi-drum units), and the bass line. There’s a lot going on there but it all works together so well. The bass line is particularly impressive with its low melodic movements underneath the snares and tenors. In my estimation, being a bass drum player on a drumline is one of the greatest challenges a percussionist can face. Check out the descending bass line from 0:17 – 0:19 to hear how each member of the bass line seamlessly passes the melody down to the next, requiring the utmost coordination. Also, watch out for the serious beat drop at 1:09.
7. Hound of Heaven – Brettan Cox
The groove is strong with this one. Particularly noteworthy are the drums, guitar-picking, and bass lines. They function as a singular voice, a great example of playing “in the pocket”, and provide the overall song with its characteristically flowing vibe, as though cruising along the top of a rolling wave. My favorite moment is from 2:38 – 2:41 where the bass and guitar follow each other in a surprising melodic riff, ending in some percussive punctuation, to make the last chorus pop. Lyrically, Brettan has taken a rather odd image pairing (hound and heaven) and beautifully highlighted one of the enigmatic qualities of God who, with hound-like accuracy and love beyond reason, is never far from us even despite our best efforts to the contrary (“I could make my bed in the deepest sea, in a desert storm you’d find me – In the streets of New York, with a million people, you’re always right behind me”).
8. Pennies from Heaven – Louis Prima
This one’s a lot of fun. Louis Prima and his band seem to have been a whirlwind of an entity in their day, taking classic jazz songs and wrangling them into a hootenanny of shouting, clapping, and conversant solos between the instruments. Louis also provided the voice of King Louie in the original Jungle Book movie as well as the well-known song I Wanna Be Like You. What I enjoy about Pennies from Heaven is it exemplifies much of what likely draws most folks to music in the first place: its fun! The background vocals make me smile (I mean come on now, it doesn’t get any better than “shoobeedoobee”) and the vocal/saxophone duel solos starting at 0:44 are hilarious. Whatever else this song may be, it’s a reminder to enjoy what you do.
9. The Men That Drive Me Places – Ben Rector
There’s a refreshing message to be heard here and you may want to read along with the lyrics while you listen (which you can find by clicking here). Ben Rector breaks the mold by writing a genuine song about the underdogs working behind the scenes in his career. With a unique mixture of both reason and humility, Ben acknowledges that he works hard in his publicly celebrated position yet is awed by the feats of those in the woodwork whose quiet and often thankless contributions are made in the midst of challenging circumstances. This is an endearing and practical reminder of many things: the importance of being grateful, working diligently, and going out of your way to thank the silent giants upon whose shoulders you stand.
10. When I Get There – Kirk Franklin
Make sure you are in a safe, unobstructed place with close proximity to a chiropractor before listening to this one. Grooves as hard as this could prompt all sorts of involuntary limb flailings and neck gyrations (known as ‘dancing’ in some circles) that will surely require follow-up with a medical professional. Kirk Franklin is a seriously gifted composer and arranger whose masterful work on this track grounds us in the terra firma of a rock-solid groove while directing our thoughts Heaven-ward. Written after the death of a close friend, Kirk uses the song to remind us all that this life is not the end but that we have the assurance of salvation in Christ for life after death in Heaven. Far from removing us from the responsibility to engage with the troubles of our present times, we are to bring the news of this promise and invitation as a light into the darkness. Whatever 2018 holds for us, let us remember that Jesus told us: “You are the light of the world…” (Matthew 5:14) and “Surely I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).