My Top 25 Albums of 2016 (10-1)

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10. Conor Oberst – Ruminations

Never has an album’s cover art so accurately conveyed what an album sounds like, than Conor Oberst’s Ruminations. Oberst at a piano with a microphone, and a harmonica around his neck, somewhere out of the frame there is likely an acoustic guitar on deck; this is all you’ll hear on this album. No drums, no bass, no backing vocals, and not much by way of production. The result is a very intimate album. If you close your eyes you can almost imagine yourself sitting in the room as  Oberst brings his rumination to life. To hear an album this sparse is breath a fresh air. It’s not something you hear too often these days, and it suits Oberst’s song writing perfectly. I’ve always been a fan of Oberst’s lyrics. They have a stream of consciousness feel to them that come out as poetry. It’s hard to know exactly who or what Oberst is singing about, but it’s beautiful just the same. The song “Barbary Coast (Later)” has one of my favorite lines from this album, “Tried to lose myself in the primitive/In Yosemite like John Muir did/But his eyes were blue and mine are red and raw.”

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9. Bon Iver – 22, a million

This album stands in stark contrast to the previous album on my list. I’m sure legions of fans would be ecstatic if Justin Vernon did, like Conor Oberst and recorded a Bon Iver album by himself with just a few instruments, but that’s not where Justin Vernon is. Vernon was thrown headlong into fame and success with the last Bon Iver album and his collaborations with Kanye West. It seems he didn’t know how to handle his new place in the world and whether or not he’d even record another Bon Iver album; the main catalyst for his success. But here we are in 2016 with a new Bon Iver album, and it fits Vernon’s current state as an artist. 22, a million is distinctly a Bon Iver album. It’s what we’ve come to know and love, but it pushes those boundaries in a way that is not always easy to swallow. It’s chaotic at times, constructed more of sounds, dissonance, and noises than of guitar or piano chords. It’s misdirected, with short songs that feel unfinished or unresolved, and yet it works. The thing is, Vernon is an incredible composer, producer, and musician. He’s also smart in his execution. He surrounds himself with a talented cast of characters, and it doesn’t hurt that he has the voice of an angel. So whether he’s alone in a cabin, in a studio creating a grandiose cinematic album, or if he’s struggling with who he is as an artist and inspired by noise and chaos, you can be sure, Justin Vernon is going to create something special.

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8. Derek Minor – Reflection

Derek Minor is one of those rare rappers who is both an MC and producer. This allows for a continuity between the the lyrics, the rapping, and music that puts Minor’s voice and vision for his latest album, Reflection on full display. Thematically, Reflection is about how we’re all made in the image of God and how Christians in particular, are called to reflect God’s greatness. I found this interesting for a couple reasons. One, hip hop often delivers a message of self idolization, of being the best. Where Minor flips that whole idea on it’s head, saying, I’m great, and you’re great, because God is great. Second, Minor addresses injustices of our day, particularly those faced by the black community, injustices that go back to day one of our country. While I can’t specifically relate, I imagine the black community has felt a lack of worth and value over the years and Minor again is flipping that on it’s head. He’s saying, yeah that sucks, I feel it, but your worth isn’t in how this country sees you, or how other people see you, your worth is in God, and you are great, and you were made for greatness, even in the face of injustice, even in your weakness and in your brokenness. That’s a powerful message and it comes across in a powerful way. Going back to Minor’s production, it’s filled with heavy in-your-face blaring beats, but he knows when to pull it back at just the right times. The album ebbs and flows as Minor communicates this message he’s clearly so passionate about. And man can he rap! He’s voice is deep and booming and blazing fast when he wants to be.

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7. Citizens and Saints – A Mirror Dimly

Citizens and Saints started out their career as a worship band for a prominent mega church called Mars Hill. Then that church fell apart and left the band wondering, what’s next? A Mirror Dimly is Citizens and Saints first album since this all happened and it finds the band redefining themselves. I’ve heard singer Zach Bolen talk a lot about this album and how after their church collapsed he felt disillusioned and was filled with doubt. You can hear him working through these feelings on the album, and through his brokenness coming back to God. The bridge from the song “Relent” really gets to the heart of Bolen’s journey, “I just want to live in peace/But I’m struggling to believe/That letting go will bring me peace/Can I sit here at your feet?/’Cause this is right where I belong/Yeah, I can feel it in my soul/You say I’m right where I belong/And I know that I belong.” This theme is a thread that runs through the whole album. It’s not a worship album in the way their previous albums were, but it certainly has a very worshipful component to it. Musically, Citizens and Saints have walked a fine line between indie rock and pop. A Mirror Dimly has those elements to be sure, but they brought in a healthy dose of post-rock influence this time around. In some ways it kind of reminds of Sigur Ros with many crescendos throughout the album. Citizens and Saints certainly succeeded in redefining themselves and found hope and truth in the midst of life storms.

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6. Lecrae – Church Clothes 3

Lecrae gained considerable popularity with his 2014 album Anomaly, which hit number one on the Billboard charts. During that album cycle he appeared a number of times on The Tonight Show. Lecrae’s new found fame has given him a more prominent voice, which he’s begun to use as a platform for increased activism. At the same time his fame and activism has actually alienated a portion of his mostly Christian fan base. All of these changes in Lecrae’s life are front and center in his lyrics on Church Clothes 3. Church Clothes 3 is not a proper follow up to Anomaly, but rather it is the third part in an ongoing mixtape series. In this day and age it’s hard to know exactly what a mixtape is vs an album, but in Lecrae’s case it’s a more raw and unpolished product than what he usually puts out. It’s clear from the get-go Lecrae has some things to get off his chest, and when artist find themselves up against the wall, they often put out their best work, which is definitely the case here. On the first two tracks Lecrae gets right into the subject of racial inequality and divides in this country and get’s to the heart of how we got to the dire state we’re in now.

They say that Crip stands for Community
Revolutionary InterParty Service
Way before the genocide and the murders
A little after integration was the verdict
When bombs might go off at the Sunday service (baow!)
They protectin’ they community
Then it turn into diplomatic immunity
Then a fight against oppression was the pressin’
Now they keep on losin’ battles and they started losin’ unity
Now they beat each other blue-black
Force fed self hate ’till the truth crack
Got they own folks hidin’ on the rooftops
They ain’t finna take no more, they finna shoot back (baow!)
Now they bond like a family they all bloods
From the concrete jungle to the small hoods
Throwin’ signs up, now the crime’s up
We was meant to kill oppression now we loadin’ 9’s up
But never mind us, grind us
Factory done closed, now a lot of people jobless
Now they got the drugs comin’ in from Nicaragua
Government done turned a blind eye, or they liars
-from the song Gangland

Later in the album Lecrae address his fans basically saying, this is who I am and these are the the things I feel are important to voice, take it or leave it. His message is loud and clear, but also comes from a place of humilty, he doesn’t pretend to have it all figured out. In terms of delivery, Lecrae’s lyrics and rapping are his best yet. Don’t get me wrong Anomaly was great, but he stepped it up to another level. Production wise the music is dark and melds well with the lyrical themes, but it’ll still get you moving.  These elements combined make for Lecrae’s best release to to date, even if it is just a mixtape.

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5. Thrice – To Be Everywhere is To Be Nowhere 

If you know me at all, or if you’ve read any of my lists before, you know I’m a huge Thrice fan. Thrice released their last album, Major/Minor back in 2011 and went on hiatus in 2012. Now after four years they’re back, and I couldn’t be more excited. It was instantly clear after first putting on To Be Everywhere is To Be Nowhere that Thrice hadn’t lost their touch during the time off. It’s one of their heavier albums in a while and draws a fair amount of influence from the 90’s. There’s subtle elements of grunge, alternative, and hard rock from that era. Thrice also pulled in some of their more experimental and ambient stylings that have been mostly absent since their 2007/2008 Alchemy Index project. Vocalist Dustin Kensrue said in an interview that his lyrics are in part influence by the direction of the music and what he’s thinking about at the time. Because this ended up being a much heavier album and because of the political landscape over the past couple years, Kensrue’s lyrics went in a very politically charged direction. Honestly he comes across as angry at times and rightfully so, clearly fed up with what he has been seeing. While the album was written well before the height of the election season and it’s ultimate outcome, it’s amazing how well it paints a picture of a looming Trump presidency. On the opening track, “Hurricane” Kensrue tells of a gathering storm, “It’s gonna rain, it’s gonna rain/Till the levee breaks/A tidal wave of fear and pain carries us away/Another fight into the night/Until nothing else remains/How do we find harbor from the hurricane?” The next track “Blood on the Sand” calls out corruption, injustice, and calls for action in the face of it all, “We panic at the sight of different colored skin/And we’ve got a plan to justify each mess we’re in/But I’ve seen too much (of this fear and hate)/I’ve had enough (and I’m not afraid)/To take a stand, to make it right — this has to end.” The rest of the album is filled with similar themes and Kensrue delivers these hard hitting words with his fierce vocals that sound stronger than ever. All that to say this album isn’t without hope. The song “The Long Defeat” is inspired by an idea that Tolkien wrote a lot about. It’s a sense that evil will keep rising up and those of us on the other side must keep beating it down time and time again. But despite this endless struggle there’s a hope that exists outside of this word that one day evil will be defeated once and for all, “So keep holding on, to hope without assurance… The suffering that I see all around/It’s enough to keep me crashing down till I…/I lie wrecked and reeling from these falls/Still I believe there’s a word in the wire/And I believe there’s a way through the fire/And I believe there’s a joy that blooms beyond these walls.” Such a beautiful image and one to cling to in troubled times.

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4. Sho Baraka – The Narrative

The Narrative is a concept album of sorts. Sho Baraka and his collaborator James Portier came up with a fictional character named Lewis Poitier and the album serves as a narrative telling Poitier’s story. The narrative focuses a lot on significant events within black history. It also draws influence from prominent black figures such as Fredrick Douglas and Harriet Tubman as well as prominent Christian figures like C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton. If that isn’t enough, Baraka adds a personal touch by incorporating elements of his own story. The result is a deeply powerful and profound journey through realities of being a black man, a father, a Christian, a 30-something, an activist and what it looks like to challenge all the preconceived notions we have about those things. Each song on The Narrative is kind of like it’s own little essay, and Baraka delivers the goods with excellent rapping. The production on the album relies heavily on live instruments and feels almost like it came out of the 70’s. It’s dripping with soul, funk, jazz, and gospel influences while still feeling modern at the same time. Also, I think they did a great job of balancing the sometimes heavy themes with upbeat music. For me this is easily the best hip-hop album of the year, and is up there with one of the best I’ve heard, period. The Narrative wraps up with a song called “Piano Break, 33 A.D.” and is arguably the best track on the album. I’ll leave you with a verse from that song.

The rich man wants more
The poor man wants your’s
The oppressed want a peace of mind
The thief want a piece of mine
The doubter needs a little faith
It ain’t cliché to say “let us pray”
Who gon’ call the fouls if everyone balls out?
So open-minded that your brain falls out
G.K. said it best, nothing fails like success
And being consumed with it is much worse than death
They killin’ you with money, they just bought your silence
You can’t worship in a land full of pirates
The more booty, I promise the more scary
Success can be a drag, you can ask Tyler Perry
We sell sex then get mad that we have rapists
We promote greed then get mad that we have haters
I hated the police until a brother got robbed
I hated welfare until a brother lost his job
When I’m at work, I watch my pockets for them corporate thugs
When I’m at home, I watch my back for those crips and bloods
If my words bring conviction, let’s call in context
I’m realizin’ life is pretty complex
Thoughts of abortion taught me sanctity of life
A divorced man and woman taught me how to love my wife
A poor man sat me down and taught me about dignity
A blind man’s vision taught me all about imagery
It’ll leave you broke, that’s why it’s called the record industry
I forgot who I am, trying to get them to remember me
We adapt and evolve, the problems just revolve
Industry creates the very problems that they try to solve
I know I trace my image way back to the beginning
We done lost so much, we don’t know when we winning
I’m hated, I’m loved, I’m both, I’m a challenge
I’m clean, I’m redeemed, I’m a recovering addict
I have baggage, I am damaged, I am unequally balanced
I’m a servant, but I have a room in the palace
Uh, never told a lie

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3. Kings Kaleidoscope – Beyond Control

Kings Kaleidoscope’s story is very similar to Citizens and Saints mentioned above. Once a former worship band for the now defunct Mars Hill, Kings Kaleidoscope have come out on the other side, transcending the worship genre and making some incredible music. Chad Gardner, the master mind behind Kings Kaleidoscope is not your average frontman. He’s more of a composer, producer, and arranger. On the band’s second full length album, Beyond Control Gardner once again uses his skills to full effect, bringing in a menagerie of musicians and creating huge soaring songs inspired by rock, pop, electronic, ska, classical, hip-hop–you name it. And it all works together amazingly well. Unlike previous Kings Kaleidoscope releases Beyond Control has no hymns or other cover songs, it’s all originals this time around. Gardner who admittedly doesn’t love the lyric writing part of his job, enlisted Zach Bolen of the aforementioned Citizens and Saints to co-write many of the lyrics on this album. The lyrics are honest and powerful. There is a running theme of this life being “beyond” our control and how peace, joy, and freedom comes when giving that control over to God. Again this isn’t a worship album per se, and yet it’s deeply worshipful. I had the opportunity to see Kings Kaleidoscope live earlier this year, and first off, they are crazy good live. I’ve never seen or heard anything quite like what they do on stage. Secondly, it was definitely a worshipful experience… it was unexpected for me and yet it made sense. This album was really important to me this year. It encouraged me, brought me peace, and lifted my spirits. If you need a pick me up, look no further.

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2. Thao & The Get Down Stay Down – A Man Alive

In terms of music and production Thao & The Get Down Stay Down’s A Man Alive is my favorite album of the year. It’s an infectious, unique, upbeat brand of music unlike a lot of what is out there. One characteristic that sets it apart, even from previous Thao albums is the production of Merrill Garbus from the band Tune-Yards giving the album an almost bohemian vibe. A Man Alive is also very rhythmic with great bass parts front to back, provided by both bass guitar parts and synth bass parts. Then there’s the drumming, which is fantastic. The drums are really loud in the mix and are kind of all over the place in the best way. I really fell in love with the music on this album and front-woman Thao Nguyen has a great voice that lends it self well to what’s going on musically. But what took this album to another level for me was finding out about it’s lyrical themes. I heard some interviews and discovered the album is about Nguyen’s estranged father and her dealing with the emotions she feels toward him. After hearing that I re-listened to A Man Alive, and it came alive to me in a whole new way. Having a father leave and not be part of your life is something I could relate to, and it something that’s not always easy to talk about. And here Nguyen is opening up in a very vulnerable way, which was very moving to me. I was particularly struck by her reaching a place of forgiveness toward her father which she talks about in the first track, “Astonished Man”, “Decades to decide I need decision/I must find and capture an astonished man/Hold him ’til he knows he is forgiven.” She doesn’t let him off the hook, which she gets to later in the album, but she’s able to empathize with her father and see things from his perspective. Forgiveness and empathy are not easy,  especially when we’ve been hurt, but they are healing, and that is something we could certainly use more of in this world.

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1. Switchfoot – Where the Light Shines Through

Over the years Switchfoot have made my end of the year top 10 lists numerous times. In fact, their 2014 album Fading West was my number one album that year. They are definitely one of my favorite bands, but even more than that, they make music that speaks to my soul. It moves me in ways other music doesn’t and for me having an emotional connection to music is what it’s all about. When I first listened to Where the Light Shines Through I actually didn’t like it. Switchfoot has done that to me before, so I gave it a few more chances and it grew on me in a big way. This is Switchfoot’s 10th album and it does a great job of combining many of their sounds from over the years, while at the same time it sounds nothing like they’ve ever done. There’s the usual rock and pop with hints of 90’s inspired sounds, psychedelic guitars, and funk inspired tunes with killer bass groves throughout. Then you have Lecrae showing up on “Looking For America” adding a little hip-hop to the mix, and the title track even has an almost mainstream country vibe that somehow works surprisingly well. These guys have honed their craft, and while some bands peak and either plateau or go down hill, Switchfoot keeps getting better with each release. Frontman Jon Foreman has always sounded great vocally, but on this album he pushes his range to new heights, and there’s something about his voice where you can tell he’s invested in what he’s singing about. And that brings us to the lyrics. Where the Light Shines Through is dripping with hope. It certainly doesn’t begin with hope, but hope has the final say. Foreman is wrestling with himself and with the world on this album. In interviews he’s talked about how this album came out of one of the darkest times in his life and he thought it would end up being a dark album. However, through the darkness he found light, and hope. He saw God moving and using the hard things for good. The title track “Where the Light Shines Through” captures these sentiments well, “Cause your scars shine like dark stars/Yeah, your wounds are where the light shines through/So let’s go there, to that place where/We sing these broken prayers where the light shines through.” Whenever I listen to these songs I end up stopping whatever I’m doing and let the words sink in. It’s inspiring, uplifting, challenging, and it helps you see the dark world we live in, in a whole new light.

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My Top 25 Albums of 2016 (25-11)

Here we are at the end of 2016… Regardless of how your year was personally, or where you stand politically, it’s safe to say, we all felt the effects of what has become a tumultuous time in our country’s history. Thankfully there are things in life that bring, joy, beauty, and hope no matter how bad things are. One of those things for me is music, and 2016 was an exceptional year for music. It was so good in fact, I decided to do a top 25 list of my favorite albums instead of the usual 10. I hope you too found some bright spots this year, and that you find something here you like! Thanks for checking it out!

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25. blink-182 – California

No Tom Delonge, no problem. While California may not be blink-182’s best albums it’s still a fun, fast, catchy pop punk album that got a lot of spins from me this summer.

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24. SURVIVE – RR7349

If you like the music from Stranger Things, then you’ll love SURVIVE (same dudes). Dark, moody, intense, and retro sounding electronica. Throw this album on and pretend your at at a dance party in the upside down!

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23. Norma Jean – Polar Similar

Norma Jean just keep trucking along and doing it well, while many of their peers have long since called it quits. Polar Similar is everything I’ve come to love and expect from Norma Jean, heavy and full of emotion.

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22. Explosions in the Sky – The Wilderness

It’s been a while since I’ve listened to some Explosions in the Sky and I’ve clearly been missing out. The Wilderness is a lot more chill than I remember these guys being and I love it! Not sure if the keys and piano are new to them or not, but either way it’s working.

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21. Gallant – Ology

If you like R&B then Gallant is your man and let me tell you this guy can SING! His range is incredible, plus he delivers with such emotion. Musically Ology has a great modern R&B sound, which rounds out a really nice album.

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20. Tegan & Sara – Love You to Death

On their last album Tegan & Sara found a home in unapologtic pop music, now on Love You to Death, they’ve put down roots. The biggest difference is that they’ve pulled in a healthy dose of 80s pop influence, which extends even to the album art and marketing for the album. And you know what, the 80s suit them well.

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19. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

I used to hate Radiohead, but this year I decided to give them a chance and they proved me wrong, big time. This album is great. It’s chilling and beautiful. It has a big sound and yet it’s so carefully crafted. I even got over being annoyed by Thom Yorke’s voice. This what I wish Coldplay and U2 sounded like, but forget those guys, I have Radiohead now!

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18. Zach Bolen – 1001

Zach Bolen is the front man for worship/indie rock outfit Citizens and Saints. For his solo album Bolen steps out of what his band is know for and writes a more personal album in the singer songwriter genre. His voice is really well suited for this style of music and the accompaniment, arrangements, and mixing are just great!

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17. The Naked and Famous – Simple Forms

Anthemic power pop, what more could you want? The Naked and Famous do it better than anyone else. This album soars and will leave you pumped up and wanting more.

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16. Weezer – Weezer (white album)

After a decade or more of crap albums Weezer made a step in the right direction with 2014’s Everything Will Be Alright in the End and now with this years self titled album they are officially back! This is the best Weezer album since Pinkerton. It’s fun, catchy, upbeat, clever, dark at times, everything we came to love about Weezer, it’s here.

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15. Tancred – Out of the Garden

Jess Abbott’s main band Now, Now has been taking it’s time writing a new record. In the mean time Abbott keeps cranking out new tunes under the moniker, Tancred. Abbott’s latest release Out of the Garden is her best yet. It’s angsty and grungy with just the right dose of pop sensibility.

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14. Jimmy Eat World – Integrity Blues

For whatever reason the past couple Jimmy Eat World releases didn’t click with me. While Integrity Blues doesn’t necessarily bring anything new to the table, it’s a great Jimmy Eat World album and that’s enough. It’s the perfect mix of driving rock songs, catchy melodies, and intriguing lyrics.

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13. Touche Amore – Stage Four

If there’s such a thing as melodic hardcore then Touche Amore embody it, and they just keep getting better and better. Stage Four tells the story of vocalist Jeremy Bolm’s mom dying of cancer, and how he dealt with it. Obviously this isn’t a feel good album, but it’s thought provoking and pulls at the heart strings. Bolm’s signature yell/scream is fitting for the emotions expressed and he even sings on a couple songs. By contrast the music is very melodic and often subdued, adding to the emotion and tension.

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12. Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book

Chance the Rapper is bringing a much needed optimism to hip hop. There are some dark moments on Coloring Book, but overall it maintains a positive vibe and energy that will put a smile on your face. Everything from the rapping, singing, and production is spot on. I especially enjoyed some of the gospel and jazz influences throughout. Chance was also heavily  influenced by his faith on this album, which comes out on stand out tracks like “Blessing” and “How Great”.

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11. Solange – A Seat at the Table

It’s likely Solange will always be in her sister’s [Beyonce] shadow, but now it doesn’t even matter. Beyonce is Beyonce and Solange is Solange and they both make great music. But let’s focus on Solange shall we. A Seat at the Table, her first in six years, is outstanding. In a country where being black and/0r being a woman means you matter less, Solange is standing tall in who she is and saying, here I am, this my story. It’s not fierce, it’s not angry, it’s not in your face, it’s not a protest, but it’s powerful, because story is powerful and words are powerful. The music is stirring and mellow, melding pop, R&B, and Jazz, while Solange’s vocals are as powerful as the story she’s telling. Additionally, the album is sprinkled with spoken interludes, featuring both her parents and most prominently, rapper Master P. These interludes tell their own stories broadening the narrative in a way that works really well on the album.

10-1 coming soon!

A Few of my Favorite Christmas Albums

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In the next week or so I’m going to start counting down my top 25 favorite albums of 2016. In the mean time I thought I’d do a quick post on some of my favorite Christmas albums. I haven’t written about Christmas music before, and I’ve found people either hate Christmas music or don’t know that good Christmas music exists. As someone who loves Christmas music, my hope is to maybe change those perceptions.

Growing up I was pretty neutral when it came to Christmas music. We had this one cassette of generic Christmas music, not even anything cool like Frank Sinatra or Judy Garland. At one point I got my mom a Neil Diamond Christmas album, but I never really got into it. I knew all the tradition Christmas hymns from singing them in Church, though as a kid they felt old and boring. As an adult I was probably like a lot of people and didn’t think much about Christmas music except to get kind of annoyed hearing it in every store during the Christmas season. Then Sufjan Stevens decided to release some Christmas music and it change everything and that is were I shall begin.

Sufjan Stevens – Songs for Christmas

This is more than just a Christmas album, it’s a box set containing over 40 songs! It encompasses everything I’ve come to love about Christmas music. It contains traditional hymns, original songs, and plenty of fun songs to get you in the Christmas spirit. It was also the first time I really started to hear and understand the significance of the Christmas hymns I grew up singing. There’s some really power stuff in there and helps ground me during the Christmas season; reminding me of what it meant for God to become man and change history forever.

Rosie Thomas – A Very Rosie Christmas

If I want to instantly get in the Christmas spirit, all I have to do is put on this album. Thomas’ original song “Why Can’t it be Christmas All Year” has become one of my all time favorite Christmas songs. This album is great too if your sick of the standard Christmas melodies. Thomas does her own take on Christmas classics such as “Silent Night” and a very different take on The Chipmunks’ “Christmas Don’t Be Late”.

Dustin Kensrue – This Good is Still Everywhere

Dustin Kensrue is the singer of my favorite band Thrice. So when he put a Christmas album I was super exited. The album is split into two parts. The first half is secular classics, and the second half is hymns. He also has two originals on the album which are both great! If you like a more folksy acoustic vibe in your Christmas music, look no further. Dustin Kensrue has also released Christmas music under the moniker The Modern Post, which is also great!

Citizens and Saints – Repeat the Sounding Joy

If dancing get’s you in the Christmas spirit then this 5 song EP is for you! After hearing these upbeat takes on Christmas hymns, you’ll never think of them the same way again.

Page CXVI – Advent to Christmas

Page CXVI are experts at reworking old hymns and they’ve done the same here for Christmas. The changes to the classics aren’t too drastic, but just different enough to give you something new. There’s also a couple originals on here and one hymn you may not be familiar with. Also, singer Latifah Philips has an amazing voice!

Heck Ya the Halls – Heck Ya the Halls, Vol. 1 & 2

Speaking of Latifah Philips, she and Aaron Strumpel started a little Christmas side project called Heck Ya the Halls. This is a little more of an up beat and fun take on Christmas music vs Page CXVI. Philips’ and Strumpel’s voices go wonderfully together. Additionally, Strumpel plays trumpet on many of the songs which adds a nice touch.

Jon Batiste – Christmas with Jon Batiste

This album came out this year and has become an instant classic for me. Jon Batiste is the band leader on The Late Show with Steven Colbert. I’ve become a big fan of his always smiling face, his energy, and his melodica infused modern jazz. Needless to say I was really excited about this album and it doesn’t disappoint. If you like jazz and/or Christmas music, this is must have! His original song “Endless Love” will no doubt go down as one of my all time favorite Christmas songs, and has a message that is much needed in 2016. Unfortunately this album is currently an Amazon exclusive so you can only find it there, but if you have Prime you can stream it for free!

I hope you’ve found something new here and if you weren’t already a Christmas music fan, then I hope you will become one! If you’d like a sampling I’ve created a Spotify playlist including some of the artists I mentioned above and some Christmas classics thrown in for good measure. Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

Top 10 Albums of 2011

10) The Civil Wars – Barton Hollow

The Civil Wars are a new guy girl duo made up of former CCM singer Joy Williams and John Paul White who’s been making music in various capacities for years. Their music could easily be described as country, folk, americana with a little bit of southern rock flair, but none of those genres really do it justice. The music on their debut album, Barton Hollow  is sparse, consisting mostly of acoustic guitar and piano, but what makes it stand out are the vocals. Williams and White create some of the most beautiful harmonies, their voices perfectly complementing one another. They have a kind of compatibility not often seen or heard in music. One can only hope this band will have a long fruitful career.

 

9) The Bell Brigade – The Bell Brigade

The Belle Brigade share a number of similarities with The Civil Wars. They too are a new guy girl duo, this time made up of siblings Ethan and Barbara Gruska. Their musical style definitely has a bit of a folksy, singer-songwriter vibe, but with plenty of pop rock thrown in for good measure. Similarly to The Civil Wars the Gruska siblings nail it on the vocals, harmonizing, perhaps only like siblings can. It’s often hard to tell who’s singing what and when. Each song is fun and full of energy and they do a great job lyrically, covering the ins and outs of life. The song “Losers” is particularly poignant as they defiantly reject the social norm of always trying to be better than everyone else.

 

8) Switchfoot – Vice Verses

Switchfoot’s new album Vise Verses sounds like what you’d expect from a band who’s been around a long time, written a lot of songs together and have honed their craft while still stretching themselves creatively. Vise Verses is probably Switchfoot’s hardest rocking album to date, though it features some softer numbers reminiscent of singer Jon Forman’s solo work. Additionally, there are a couple of tracks where the band explores sounds and styles they haven’t yet before and pull them off perfectly. The song “The War Inside” sounds like a straight up R&B song while “Selling the News” is a funky, almost reggae tune that has Forman delivering the verses with spoken word style vocals. Switchfoot have done it again and proved they are still relevant after 16 years.

 

7) Thrice – Major/Minor

Thrice’s previous album, Beggars was pretty much a straight rock album and Major/Minor picks up right where Beggars left off. Major/Minor is definitely their most aggressive album in a while. Beggars was very much bass driven, while Major/Minor is all about the drums, featuring drummer Riley Breckenridge’s best drumming to date. Of course there is plenty of Thrice’s signature guitar work, which rocks as hard as ever, while singer Dustin Kensrue’s vocals have really taken on a truly bluesy tone lending itself perfectly to the music. Kensrue also penned some of the best lyrics this year focusing a lot on grace and how it pertains to salvation, not to mention the song “Anthology” which contains a collection of past Thrice lyrics put together as a love song. Sadely Thrice recently annouced they are going on hiatius. Time will only tell, but this could be their last album and if it is they certainly went out on a high note, not to mention all the other amazing albums they’ve given us.

 

6) Jay-Z and Kanye West – Watch the Throne

Last year Kanye West released one of the best albums of 2010 titled My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. This year he’s back, but this time with his buddy Jay-Z in tow. The production on Watch the Throne is superb. Listening through its interesting hearing the intricacies of how the samples, instrumentation and beats are assembled to create songs much like the way a rock band would arrange guitars, bass, keyboards and drums. Some of the samples include songs from Otis Redding, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield and Nina Simone, just to name a few. Lyrically the album focuses mostly on fame and wealth, which provides an interesting insight into the lifestyle these two men obviously embrace, but who also aren’t afraid to point out its pit falls.

[Warning: This video contains language some folks might find offensive]

 

5) Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes

Lykke Li came back this year in a big way with the follow up to her 2008 debut Youth Novels. On her new album, Wounded Rhymes Lykke Li delivers the goods with more power, confidence and angst than ever. She somehow manages to create the most perfect pop songs while also remaining completely authentic. Wounded Rhymes is filled with emotion which is conveyed by songs that are over-the-top and bombastic and songs that are very stripped down. Lykke Li has proven she has staying power; it’s just too bad she isn’t topping the pop charts instead of the likes of Lady GaGa and Katy Perry.

 

4) Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know

Laura Marling’s 2010 album, I Speak Because I Can was number 11 on my Top 25 albums of that year and this year she’s back, this time in my top 10. Marling is hands down one of the best singers and songwriters, male or female in music today. While Marling doesn’t consider herself a folk singer she certainly has a folky vibe to her music. However, on her latest album, A Creature I Don’t Know she ups the ante in terms of arrangements. There is much more to these songs than just her and her guitar. Electric guitar, piano and percussion are more prominent giving it a lush feel. Though ultimately at the core of this album is Marling’s beautiful voice and amazing song writing. It will be a joy to follow her career for many years to come.

 

3) Haley Bonar – Golder

Back in 2009 Haley Bonar left the Twin Cities for Portland and wrote her latest album Golder while there. However, she couldn’t stay away for long and returned in 2010 to record the album with a familiar cast of talented local Twin City’s musicians. The result is one of the best albums of 2011 and for Bonar, her first album that has a truely full band feel, as opposed to just a solo artist. Her band gives these songs depth and more of a rock sound. Bonar’s songwriting is better than ever. She’s able to write about sometimes heavy subject matter, but also has an innocent and childlike wonder to her writing. Many of the songs are just plain cheerful. I’d be remiss not to mention Bonar’s voice, which is delicate and charming, yet confident and so well controlled. I think I can speak for all Twin Cities music fans when I say, we are glad to have Haley Bonar back and can’t wait to see what she’ll do next.

 

2) St. Vincent – Strange Mercy

Annie Clark, the woman behind St. Vincent is a musical genius. She’s very calculated in the way she writes and records and seems have a particular focus musically with each release. Clark’s third album Strange Mercy is her guitar album. Anyone who knows her music knows Clark is a killer guitarist, but on this album she really lets it shine. Each song is driven by her electric guitar which is almost unrecognizable at times because of all the effects she uses. Clark uses and executes the effects so masterfully the result is nothing short of amazing. Her lovely vocals and the accompanying music balance perfectly with the guitar which is clearly at the forefront making for a really rocking album without being a rock album. There’s definitely jazz, classical and pop influences scattered throughout. And what really makes this album really stand out is Clark’s ability to not just compose great songs, but to compose an entire album. It’s the kind of album that works best listing from beginning to end, which is how an album should be.

 

1) Bon Iver – Bon Iver, Bon Iver

[For clairification about the the title of this album here is a note from the writer of a Pitchfork interview with Justin Vernon: “Ed. note: press materials and retail outlets refer to the album as Bon Iver, but Vernon has indicated that the title is Bon Iver, Bon Iver.”]

Bon Iver is the brain child of Eau Claire Wisconsin native Justin Vernon. Back in 2008 Vernon released the first Bon Iver album titled For Emma, Forever Ago. The story behind that album is one of myth and legend and that along with it’s musical brilliance captured people’s hearts. In the years since the question has been, could Vernon follow up such a great album with even the slightest bit of success? It seems most people didn’t think he could. However, fans and critics alike underestimated Vernon, not just as a musician and songwriter, but as an artist and exceeding expectations he released the best album of 2011 and one that will likely hold up as one of the best albums of the decade.

Bon Iver, Bon Iver is a work of art. The arrangements are superb, swaying and swelling with a menagerie of instrumentation not found of the first album such as keyboards, steel guitar, various percussion, saxophones and excellent backing vocals. Vernon surrounded himself with wonderful musicians creating an almost orchestral full band sound as opposed to just a guy in a cabin in the woods. The production also lends itself well to the overall sound, a sound that isn’t what you’d call timeless but pays homage to genres from many eras such as 80s synth, folk, soul and experimental rock. In addition to the great music is, of course Vernon singing in his signature falsetto and in his rich soulful lower register, singing words that are poetic and perfectly matched to the vocals and melodies. Local musician Jeremy Messersmith described Vernon’s voice as a national treasure after a live performance here in Minneapolis. My wife and I happened to be at that show as well and it was simply phenomenal, further enhancing my love for this album (and the first album for that matter) and my appreciation of Vernon as an artist. I’ve written about a number of other great albums from 2011 but none of them really came close to Bon Iver’s sophomore effort. As soon as I heard it I knew it would be my choice for album of the year and I clearly wasn’t the only one who felt that way.

How I’ve Come to Love the Library

Growing up I wasn’t a fan of reading. Sometimes I would go to the local library and look at books, but I would end up checking out a few issues of Popular Mechanics magazine instead, only to look at the pictures.

Things didn’t change much as I got older. The only time I read was when it was required for school and even then I found ways to cut corners. By the time I graduated high school I’d probably only read a handful of books beginning to end.

In college I still wasn’t reading much and only went to the library for research. I didn’t mind the library at my college, but I started to rack up fines and found it difficult to find books on my own. This is when I started to hate the library. The card cataluge and dewy decimal system was a a joke and computers didn’t make it much easier. The fines were annoying, the librarians were mean and where did they get all those books anyway?

As my hatred of libraries increased, ironically my love for books did also. One of my problems was I didn’t know what I liked to read. Then I read Donald Miller’s book Blue Like Jazz the first non-fiction book I’d ever read on my own. I loved it and realized I loved non-fiction. This was just shortly after I graduated from college and I began to start reading more and more non-fiction. I also realized I enjoyed buying books, going to book stores and starting my own book collection. A collection of books kind of tells it’s own story, people can see what you’ve read and what you’re into. Plus, it’s nice to have those books if ever you want to reread them or loan them out.

Now nearly 8 years out of college I read constantly and my tastes have expanded to include fiction as well. I still love buying books, but in the past year things have changed. We’ve been trying to save money and pay off debt, which makes it harder to justify buying new books. We buy used when we can, but that can still add up. Then I discovered something. The library.

It started a few months back when I was trying to find a book we were to read for our book club. I didn’t want to buy it since I wasn’t sure if it was a book I’d want to keep, so I broke down and went to the library. To my surprise I found the book easily and as I was browsing I noticed a graphic novel section. I started getting into graphic novels a couple years ago, but found them to be very expensive. Now here I was at the library staring at a whole shelf of them. Over the next week or so I got onto the website for our county library system and learned how easy it is to request books online. They email you when the book is in and you go pick it up and check it out in a mater of minutes.

So over the past few weeks I’ve been requesting books like crazy (mostly graphic novels) and not only that but music and movies as well. And that is how I’ve come to love the library. I still enjoy buying books and probably always will, but the library provides an easy way to get books and media that I wouldn’t necessarily want to spend money on.

New Tumblr and Old Blog

I recently set up a tumblr page which you can see here. It’s not meant to replace this blog, but be an extension of it. I want to use this blog  more for writing longer blog posts, but I don’t always have time to do that. Where as my tumblr will be more a place where I can just post just quick little things here and there, particularly media. It’s kind of pain to post media on WordPress, but it’s really easy on tumblr. In addition I’ve also imported my old blog (The Wood Between the Worlds) into this one. So if you’re interested you can check out the archives and see what I was posting a few years ago.

I’m going to try and post more here this winter, I just haven’t had much time with a new baby and all.

Darren

Being a New Dad – Week 5

Being a new parent is difficult I must say and I feel okay saying it. Since I get asked about it almost constantly I sometimes feel like I need to put on a facade and act like everything is perfect, lest people think Rachel and I are bad parents. But the truth is, it can be incredibly frustrating at times and it feels good to be open about it.

I tend to get frustrated easily, not one of my best traits. This has be been made particularly clear to me having a newborn. When my son Archer is red faced and screaming while I’m trying to put him to sleep, while I myself am very tired, it makes me mad at him and wonder why he’s doing this to me. Sounds pretty selfish, huh? I guess that’s what makes us human. So, I often find myself praying and asking God for patience, understanding and to be reminded that Archer is just a baby and doesn’t know any better and isn’t out to get me or Rachel. Although he did projectile poop on her once, so maybe he is out the get her. Thankfully she is much more patient than I.

The praying has helped, and I know God is working in both Rachel and I, changing us in ways we’ve never imagined. However, at first I couldn’t help but think, “hey God, you really could have done a better job at this whole baby thing, maybe you could have came up with a better form of communication than crying… just saying.” Sounds silly, I know, but I was serious. Then something struck me. I’m sure I read this somewhere at some point in some form, but what I realized is, if God made babies able to clearly communicate what they want and need, it would be, well, easy. Sounds great, right. The problem is, easy doesn’t require sacrifice and every good, healthy, meaningful relationship does. The core of who God is and at the heart of His story is relationship (okay I’m sure I’m steeling this from Donald Miller). And God made babies cry so we the parents would have to sacrifice ourselves for them, creating a deep bond and relationship like no other. In fact, it’s a pretty awesome reflection of God, both in marriage and then in parenting. With that In mind, I’m thankful. I’m thankful for God teaching me how to be more like him through my son and my wife and by extension showing others what God is like. It’s a beautiful thing.

Finally, I must say, parenting is also a lot of fun and brings a lot joy into Rachel and I’s life. God didn’t make it easy, but He threw some truly joyful moments to lighten the load. Archer is sleeping across from me now in his swing and he’s just amazing to look at. My favorite times are when Rachel and I are at home together and Archer is awake, happy and alert. We’ll lay him on the floor or on the bed and talk to him and he’ll put on a little show for us. God definitely knew what he was doing. Plus, how can you not love this face?