One of the things that should prompt a thankful pride in all Americans is how our country’s presidents so often and so willingly reach for the hot handle of responsibility. In fact, a famous president once said, “The buck stops here.” This series, “The Pop Presidents,” seeks to honor an aspect of the last eleven president’s responsibilities that is often overlooked – presiding over the growth of pop music, specifically the genre known as Rock and Roll. Over the course of the first eleven articles, the ten best albums released under each of the eleven administrations’ oversight will be briefly discussed. In the final article of the series, the eleven presidents will be ranked based on the music released during their time in the Oval Office.
It’s been awhile since the last installment of the Pop Presidents. I could chalk it up to prudence on my part – I was waiting for more music to be released during President Obama’s presidency. That would be dishonest, though. The reality is closer to I never made it a priority. Although, the waiting for more music to be released is starting to sound better and better as an excuse. Let’s go with that. Screw what I wrote fifteen seconds ago; I hadn’t had enough coffee and was confused. The Pop Presidents: Obama is late because I was doing due diligence, out of respect for the readers, and waiting for as much good music as possible to be released under President Obama’s musically knowledgeable eye.
But seriously. I thought choosing the ten “best” albums released during Johnson’s administration was hard (you know, choosing between albums like Pet Sounds, Astral Weeks, and The Velvet Underground & Nico, to name a mere three); ranking albums released between January 20, 2009 and today has proven even more difficult, especially in the context of me looking ahead at the final rankings. I’m not sure if it’s fair to President Obama to compare his music to the music of Reagan; not enough time has passed to provide any perspective and allow the cream to rise and the whatever-falls-when-the-cream-rises to fall. But, I can’t wait another ten years to finish this series; I have a commitment to you the readers, after all.
I’m not sure if Presidents have become more polarizing figures or not. I mean, research the role, if any, that John Quincy Adams played in the death of Andrew Jackson’s wife. What I do know is that since I reached voting age a few months after President Clinton took the oath of office for the first time, it seems that the conversations around and about the Presidents have continued to digress – the advent of social media has definitely not helped. I sincerely hope, and please don’t read this as a statement about my politics, that whoever is elected in 2016, he or she does not have to face the level of absurd rhetoric that President Obama has faced. That being said, why couldn’t have President Barack Obama been more conscientious about who was allowed to release music and what music was released during his administration? Seriously, Mr. President. Justin Bieber? Two new Nickleback albums? The British boy band JLS? The current state of pop music is Obama’s fault! Fortunately, President Obama has redeemed his administration somewhat with the albums listed below.
Honorable Mentions: Hospice, The Antlers; XX, The XX; Sigh No More, Mumford & Sons; Teen Dream, Beach House; This is Happening, LDC Soundsystem; Have One on Me, Joanna Newsome; Bon Iver, Bon Iver; El Camino, The Black Keys; 21, Adele; Strange Mercy, St. Vincent; Lonerism, Tame Impala; Chemical Orange, Frank Ocean; Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, Kendrick Lamar; Benji, Sun Kil Moon; Yeezus, Kanye; The Seer, Swans; Visions, Grimes; Modern Vampire of the City, Vampire Weekend; Winnowing, Bill Mallonee; Hold It In, Melvins; Idler Wheel, Fiona Apple; Take Care, Drake; Random Access, Daft Punk; Days, Real Estate; Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, Courtney Barnett.
The 11 Best Albums from 2009 to 2015:
11. The Defiant – The Men They Couldn’t Hang, September, 2014.
Yes, I can count. No, I don’t care if giving President Obama eleven albums is cheating; it’s my list, I can ignore the rules if I want. The Defiant, the thirtieth anniversary album from the folk-punk pioneers The Men They Couldn’t Hang, deserves much more than an honorable mention. In fact, if this incredible album had made even a little more of a splash, it would be, without question, in the top five. Honestly, I’m getting tired of explaining this to everyone. Buy the album already. If you do, you’ll agree that The Defiant is one of the best albums released during the Obama administration.
I’m not sure if David Byrne literally passed the art-rock baton to Annie Clark (St. Vincent) while they were recording their 2012 collaboration Love This Giant but listening to St Vincent, her fourth solo album, sure makes one wonder if he did.
Adam Granduciel took his sweet time recording this album, and President Obama should thank him for it. A critically acclaimed and brutally honest album, Lost in the Dream musically hearkens back to Reagan but with the new millennium’s devotion to pluralism.
8. The Firewatcher’s Daughter – Brandi Carlile, March, 2015.
The longer I put off writing this article, the farther up the list The Firewatcher’s Daughter moves. Wait long enough, and Brandi Carlile will end up in President Obama’s top five.
7. Tomorrow Is My Turn – Rhiannon Giddens, February, 2015.
President Obama may have presided over two new Nickelback albums, but he’s also presiding over Rhiannon Giddens – possibly the best female vocalist of the last twenty-plus years. Tomorrow Is My Turn is Giddens’, who co-founded and headlines The Carolina Chocolate Drops, first solo effort, and the album of blues, jazz, and country standards, plus a few Giddens’ originals, is one of 2015’s must haves.
6. Wakin on a Pretty Daze – Kurt Vile, April, 2013.
Sometimes it’s hard to know who came first, Kurt Vile or Adam Granduciel. Regardless, Wakin on a Pretty Daze sits higher on President Obama’s list than Vile’s past bandmate’s album. Listen to them both and decide for yourself.
5. Let England Shake – PJ Harvey, February, 2011.
Outside of TMTCH at #11, PJ Harvey is the elder musical statesperson for President Obama’s list. Besides bridging the musical gap between past presidents, with Let England Shake PJ Harvey reminded President Obama that a mostly unwanted war was still being waged on his watch.
4. Metamodern Sounds in Country Music – Sturgill Simpson, May, 2014.
If Metamodern Sounds in Country Music contained only one song and that one song was Sturgill Simpson’s cover of When In Rome’s “The Promise,” this great throwback-country album would be on this list. Of course, Sturgill Simpson gave President Obama nine other bonus songs that also feature his inviting, gravelly voice.
3. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – Kanye West, November, 2010.
Kanye may be the one musician on this list that comes even close to eliciting the same level of committed opinions, good and bad, as does President Obama. Regardless of your opinion of the man, it’s hard to deny the importance to the world of pop music of Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
The opening riff to A.M. may be the closest thing to approaching iconic out of the incredibly young music from President Obama. Years down the road, history will smile even more kindly on that opening riff since it kicks off an excellent album from Arctic Monkeys.
1. The Suburbs – Arcade Fire, August, 2010.
A somewhat dystopian reflection on growing up in the suburbs of Houston, The Suburbs is one of the most decorated and critically acclaimed albums of the new millennium. Which is appropriate considering that in the aftermath of the recession that began in 2007, many millennials distrust suburban ideals. Not to mention that The Suburbs is an excellent album that people will be listening to and discussing generations from now. Arcade Fire’s best album was an easy choice for President Obama’s number one slot.
 At the writing of this, it’s the music release week of May 26 (although my track record indicates that I’ll probably edit the date in this footnote at least once – you’ll never know). This means that, because I didn’t receive promo copies, upcoming releases from Florence + the Machine and Muse were not considered for this article. The latest album from Mumford & Sons was, however.
 By that, I mean “no time.”
 Note to self – next time, make sure that you know the mechanics of the metaphor before using it.
 Seriously buy it already! How many times do I have to write gushing things about it before you take me seriously?
 Or is it down the list? You should know that I agonized over that wording. I really, really hope that I chose correctly. I feel as if the integrity of the entire list depends on it.
 Technically the answer is Kurt Vile, who was recording music before his stint in The War on Drugs.
 Win and William Butler’s experiences, to be exact.
John is a theatre artist and writer based out of Arlington, VA. Nowadays, though, most of his artistic output is spent on keeping his two young children amused, occupied, and off of the top of the bookshelves.