My Top 30 Albums of 2018 – Part II

Before we get into the top 10 I wanted to recognize some great music I listened to this year that didn’t make it on this list for various reasons. I revisited a bunch of albums I missed in 2017 and three really stood out; Phoebe Bridger’s Strangers in the Alps, Paramore’s After Laughter and KB’s Today We Rebel. I listened these albums a ton and had I caught them in 2017 they certainly would’ve made my list from that year. Chance the Rapper released 6 singles this year and I listened to them pretty much nonstop. Had those songs been an album, it’d be listed below for sure! Lastly, when I checked my Spotify stats for the year my top artist was Caspar Babypants… who is Caspar Babypants you ask… it’s a band that makes children’s music and my boys are big fans, but honestly I like the music as well. So pro tip, if you have kids definitely check out Caspar Babypants, they have a substantial back catalog and basically put out an album ever year. Now, without further ado, here’s my top 10!

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10. Social Club Misfits – Into the Night

Social Club Misfits is a rap duo made up of MCs, Marty Mar and FERN. Their newest album Into the Night is one of those albums you put on because of how fun it is. As Marty and FERN trade off verses there’s a clear chemistry between them. They also have a playful, upbeat vibe. In terms of production it’s hook after hook on Into the Night. These songs will not only get you moving but they’ll be stuck in your head the rest of the day. In many ways this feels like it could be a mainstream rap album. The difference is these guys aren’t just going through the motions of making hit songs. There is clearly thought and intention behind every minute of this album. You can hear it in the interplay between Marty and FERN, or in the way their rapping and the production perfectly complement each other. The lyrics are also well thought out and well constructed. Marty and FERN also happen to be Christians, so their faith certainly comes through in their words. But again they veer away from the mainstream;  this isn’t cheesy, sugar coated Christian music. They go deep into their struggles and give God the praise for getting them through it.

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9. Jon Batiste – Hollywood Africans

If you’ve ever watched The Late Show with Stephen Colbert then you at least have some knowledge of who Jon Batiste. Batiste is the music director and band leader at The Late Show and it’s how I first discovered him. From the first episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert I was immediately captured by the show’s funky theme song and by Batiste’s huge smile and energy. Plus he was dancing around the stage playing a melodica… who plays a melodica, let alone as the leading instrument on a late night TV show!? As much as I love Stephen Colbert I found myself tuning into to hear Batiste and his backing band. Around the same time I was starting to get into Jazz music and found Batiste had a back catalog of Jazz albums. I ate them up. His style of Jazz was so unique and infectious. Plus I happen to really love piano and Batiste plays the piano like no other. All that to say, I’d like to now introduce his newest album, Hollywood Africans, which happens to be the first time I’ve had a jazz album make one of my annual lists. This album embodies all the things I love about Batiste and in a lot of ways it’s so much more than just a jazz album. In addition to jazz it features, blues, classical, contemporary pop, and modern pop. There’s a mix of songs featuring Batiste’s wonderful vocals, and others that are purely instrumental. Some covers and some originals. One song I’ll highlight is “It’s a Wonderful World.” Initially I was a little bummed to see this song… I thought, do we really need another cover of this song, but when I heard it I was blown away. It’s a beautiful version playing tribute the original while adding a whole new twist. Most notably it’s Batiste’s piano arrangement that makes this cover so special. He uses the whole keyboard making it a bit over the top, but in the best possible way. Batiste highlights a well written song with his own touches. This album is a special one, definitely check it out.

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8. Jeremy Messersmith – Late Stage Capitalism

Jeremy Messersmith used to teach a class on songwriting at MacPhail Center for Music here in Minneapolis. It makes sense because he strikes me as someone who could have a PHD in Songwriting. He writes incredibly well-crafted pop songs and his latest album Late Stage Capitalism could serve as thesis for such. Nearly all the songs could be a single made for radio, but unlike mainstream pop, there’s a precision and intentionality to every aspect of each song. Most people like pop hits because they’re catchy without a care as to what the song is saying, what instruments are used, how it’s arranged, or how it’s produced. The songs on Late Stage Capitalism are incredibly catchy and yet well thought out. I’m not sure if Messersmith is a perfectionist, but this album feels perfectionistic, in a good way. Messersmith is also really good at writing sad songs. Here he covers such topics as lost love, humanity’s poor treatment of the earth, the pitfalls of televangelism and on my favorite song “Monday, You’re Not So Bad” he argues that Monday is actually pretty good because the rest of the days aren’t that great. The somewhat pessimistic tone is carefully hidden and contrasted with bubbly upbeat melodies. Musically Messersmith captures some pop vibes reminiscent of the 60s as well as folk and rock influences. He’s once again surrounded by his usual cast of characters who provide great accompaniment, backing vocals, and production. I listened to a recording of Messersmith and his band giving commentary on the album and it sounds like they had a lot of fun making it, which comes through on the album. It’s actually somewhat contrary to what I mentioned before about the perfectionism of the song writing as the performances themselves feel more carefree.

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7. Leon Bridges – Good Thing

I don’t typically go for soul music or R&B, but every once in a while there’s an artist or album that really grabs me. Leon Bridges is that artist and Good Thing is that album. When I first started listening to Good Thing I liked it, but figured I’d get bored with it after awhile. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I kept coming back to it over and over, and found myself singing and dancing along. Bridges’ first album felt like a throw back to a different time, whereas Good Thing feels distinctly modern. There’s still plenty of throw back influences from the 50s and 60s and even some song that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Prince album. The difference being, those influences give flavor to a fresh sound rather than just mimicking the original. Bridges pulled together a talented team of producers and songwriters who together helped create a soulful, energetic, and sexy album playing to Bridges’ strengths. His vocals range from smooth to smokey and he hits his higher register and falsetto with precision. Lyrically Bridges grapples with finding true love for the first time and trying to balance that with being a touring musician. Does he settle down and possible risk his career or does he pursue his dreams and maybe miss out on love. There’s tension and Bridges captures those emotions so well in both his lyrics and his vocal performance. I’m not sure if my love for Good Thing will turn me one to more music in this genre, but I do know it definitely made me a Leon Bridges fan and I can’t wait to here what he does next.

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6. Thrice – Palms

Palms is Thrice’s second album since coming back from hiatus and with this release it’s become clear, this is a new era for Thrice in more ways that one. In 2007 and 2008 Thrice released their very ambitious concept album The Alchemy Index which found them at their most experimental spanning numerous genres. For their next couple of albums Beggars and Major/Minor Thrice responded in typical Thrice fashion by going in a stripped down, straight forward rock direction. In some ways it felt like something was missing from the Thrice catalog, something that belonged as a bridge between The Alchemy Index and Beggars. Now post hiatus Thrice is filling that missing gap with 2016’s To Be Everywhere is To Be Nowhere and particularly with this year’s Palms. Palms employs many of the electronic sounds that have been mostly absent since The Alchemy Index. Right out of the gate the opening track “Only Us” starts out with an eerie synth part which sounds reminiscent of the Stranger Things score. The song builds beautiful as the vocals come in, then drums, then after a minute in we get some deep crunchy bass, and finally in come the guitars. Thrice takes those elements and constructs each track sounding both like the Thrice we know and love and sounding like something totally new. I’ve always been a big fan of brothers Riley and Ed Breckinridge who play drums and bass respectively. Their parts really shine on Palms providing a nice backbone to the lead parts. Lead guitarist Teppei Teranishi also does some great work on the guitar sounds and brings back his skills on keys in full force. Going back briefly to this being a new era for Thrice, I think a big part of that is frontman Dustin Kensrue’s lyrics. Kensrue has always been pretty open about his Christian faith especially on the couple albums prior to their hiatus. But in recent years his worldview has changed. He still claims to be a Christian, but no longer in an orthodox sense. Many of the lyrics on Palms address these changes. I’ll admit I don’t connect with these lyrics as much as I have on past Thrice albums since I don’t share many of Kensrue’s new beliefs. However, I do still really love his writing and still find truth in these songs. Kensrue also seems to get more and more comfortable with his vocals with each new album. His vocals on Palms are raw and prominent in the mix and is one of his best vocal performances to date.

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5. mewithoutYou – [Untitled] and [untitled] e.p.

mewithoutYou released both an LP, [Untitled] and an EP, [untitled] e.p. this year. I’m primarily going to talk about the LP, but definitely check out the EP as well. It serves as sort of a companion piece to the full length album and is excellent in it’s own right. With that said, mewithoutYou is one the most unique rock bands of the past 20 years. There are not many bands to really compare them too. Over their career they’ve gone from post hardcore, to folk, to experimental indie rock. All while being lead by Aaron Weiss’ unique mix of spoken word, screaming, and singing vocals. They continued to innovate from album to album and [Untitled] finds them pushing their sounds in directions they’ve never gone before. In many ways they’ve returned to their heavy roots. Some of the new songs are some of their most aggressive with Weiss using his signature scream much more than he has on the past few albums. Not to mention plenty of distorted guitars and hard hitting drums. At the same time [Untitled] features some of mewithoutYou’s most subdued songs in which they incorporate ethereal and ambient vibes not previously present in their catalog. To describe this album in cinematic terms I would say it paints an eerie almost post-apocalyptic landscape. But the driving force of any mewithoutYou album is Aaron Weiss and the same is true for [Untitled]. Weiss is an interesting character, who’s life has been shaped by various faith traditions including Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. His lyrics are very poetic often dripping with religious and Biblical symbolism. It can sometimes be hard to understand what he’s singing about, but on [Untitled] there seems to be a theme of seeking. Weiss got a married a few years ago and now has daughter. I could be wrong but I image some of these changes in his life have made him reevaluate the meaning of life and how it connects with faith and God. Either way there’s a wealth of fascinating lyrics to dive into here, and I’m pretty sure I’ve just scratched the surface.

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4. boygenius – boygenius

boygenius is a collaboration between Phoebe Bridgers, Julian Baker, and Lucy Dacus who are three of the best up and coming song writers in the indie scene right now. Phoebe Bridgers’ album Stranger in the Alps was my favorite album from this year that came out in 2017. Julian Baker’s album Turn Out the Lights was number 11 on my list last year. I’m just becoming familiar with Lucy Dacus, but let’s just say when it comes to boygenius, I was already a big fan of two thirds of the band before it even existed. Each of these women write deeply stirring songs full of passion and imagery. They also each have beautiful voices, each unique in their own right. Bring them all together and the result is something really special. Their debut album is just six songs, but considering their short writing and recording time these songs are the best of the best. There’s no filler on this album, it’s exceptional song writing from three exceptional artists. Bridgers, Baker, and Dacus each brought one song idea to the table and then the three worked together building upon those ideas and co-writing the rest. Their three voices harmonize beautifully together and musically each of their strengths plays off the others making for a truly collaborative album. The three each have a propensity for the melancholy, which is certainly present here, and yet there’s a sense of togetherness if not commiseration. It’ll be great to continue to follow these women as they continue what I’m sure will be incredible solo careers. Whether or not we’ll get more boygenius remains to be seen, but even if this is it, what a great little album it was.

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3. Roma di Luna – We Were Made To Forgive

I first encountered Roma di Luna performing in my friends’ backyard in north Minneapolis for a house party. The performance was stripped down and featured the then married couple Channy Leaneagh and Alexi Casselle. Their intimate performance of folk songs both originals and covers instantly won me over. I bought a CD from Leaneagh afterwords and we talked a bit about their bass player James Everest who I was taking guitar lessons from at the time. It was an experience I’ll never forget. Roma di Luna would go grow in their sound over the years and release a couple more albums before Leaneagh and Casselle divorced putting an end to the band. Not long after Leaneagh became the front woman of the synth-pop band Polica. Polica got fairly big as Twin City’s bands go and had some national success. It would seem Roma di Luna was a long distant memory. Then something interesting happened. A couple years ago Leaneagh start jamming with some of the Roma di Luna guys again and formed a new band. But the new band was short lived and after a series of events Roma di Luna official reformed. Some reunion shows followed and eventually they got back in the studio and recorded We Were Made To Forgive. The title kind of sums it up, doesn’t it? A band that ended due to the divorce of it’s two leading members is back together. Forgiveness and reconciliation would have to play a part in that equation. The songs on We Were Made To Forgive mostly sung by Leaneagh catalogs the pain she and Casselle caused each other but also the fruit of finding forgiveness and peace. What a great example for us all to follow. Musically this feels like a whole new Roma di Luna. They sound much more like a seasoned indie rock band and I think Leaneagh brought some pop sensibility from her work in Polica. I was really blown away honestly. Roma di Luna always felt like a live band to me, but We Were Made To Forgive is amazingly written, produced, and recorded. I’m sure it sounds great live too, but it’s definitely a studio album. Lastly I wanted to mention Casselle’s role on this album. He only performs on two songs which are delivered as spoken word performances over ambient music. The first serves as an interlude in the middle of the album and the second closes out the album. They are really incredible performances and the add a perfect unexpected touch.

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2. Dessa – Chime

I’ve never been a huge Dessa fan, but I’ve liked her stuff enough that I’ve casually followed along over the course of here career. Her latest album Chime completely changed that. From first listen I was hooked and have been diving in ever since. Dessa splits her time as a musician between being a member of the hip hop collective Doomtree and releasing her own solo albums. While Dessa does some rapping on Chime it certainly isn’t a rap album. However, it does have a fair amount of hip hop influence primarily in the production. Chime is produced by Doomtree alum Lazerbeak and Andy Thompson who is a long time calibrator with the aforementioned Jeremy Messersmith. Lazerbeak and Thompson bring a more beat driven approach to Dessa’s songs. Dessa adds in flair and personality with her vocal performance and melodies making for dynamica album full of energy. Another area where Dessa shines on this album is in her lyrics. Like many rappers she has a way with words particularly in her use of metaphors. In the song “Velodrome” she uses the idea of racing in a velodrome as a metaphor for facing life’s challenges. You race fast around the track leaning hard into the steep banks on the edge of control and sometimes you just can’t hold on. Dessa also happened to put out a book this year titled My Own Devices. It is a collection of essays about her life and it provides an inside look into her lyrics and the way she thinks about things. One of the main themes in the book is her difficulty of getting over a long time love interest and going to extreme lengths to do so, even going as far to participate in neurofeedback therapy in an attempt to scrub her brain of her romantic feelings toward this person. This theme is also explored on Chime as well as her experience being a woman in a man’s world, her thoughts on freewill, grief, pain, and growing up. It’s definitely a deep dive and well worth the journey.

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1. Shad – A Short Story About a War

I’d like to start out with a quote about this album which I feel like perfectly captures it, “We found [Shad’s album A Short Story About a War] satisfying and engrossing, like a good book… it’s not background music and it’s not going to help you turn off your brain.” This was said by by Frannie Kelley as an intro to her and Ali Shaheed Muhammad’s conversation with Shad for their podcast Microphone Check. Another thing I wanted to mention about this album is it was my most anticipated album of 2018. Shad is my favorite rapper and it’s been five years since his last full length album, Flying Colours came out. Also, Shad does an excellent job of speaking into what’s going on in culture and I felt his voice was one we really needed to hear during these crazy times we find ourselves in. However, when I first put on A Short Story About War, I wasn’t really feeling it. But as the quote above implies this album is not an “easy” listen, it’s not one you just put on for fun, it’s one that requires some time and thought. Because I love Shad’s past work so much I knew this album was worth giving a chance and sure enough it got better with each listen. It started out at about 15 on this list and slowly but surely made it’s way to number one! One of the reasons this album takes time to digest is because it’s a concept album with many layers. As you might have guessed from the title the album tells the story about a fictional war with a couple of key characters, the sniper and the fool. The music unfolds a bit like a play, with Shad providing narration in the form of interludes throughout the album. While the story is fictional it pulls truth from the real world we live in. Shad speaks to the violence and injustices in our world and highlights how some are blind to these things and others are impacted by them daily. The production is fairly dark, but masterfully matches the mood of each scene in the story. There’s a mix of heavy beats, samples, and some nice jazz influences in the interludes. Shad’s rapping, lyrics, and word play are on point and could honestly go toe to toe with any of the top rappers out there. Here’s a taste from the song “The Stone Throwers (Gone in a Blink)”:

Game hasn’t changed, same ol’ monopoly
Same couple players own all of the property
I ain’t a prop, don’t give no props to me
My people still don’t eat properly
Think we forgot? We was just property
Think we’ll be bought again?
Think that they brought them democracy?
I think they brought back them poppy seeds
My people locked up for chopping
That’s hypocrisy
We wasn’t thought of
We wasn’t brought up and taught we was set up
That’s why we get caught up
Y’all discarded us
Put them bars up
Of course we got guards up
We hard cuz we’re hard up
They got them start-ups and Starbucks’
We got a couple of stars till they turn ’em to stardust
They starve us
Can’t even drink water
Up North with that Flint water
All in the sink as they sink farther
Kids on the brink
Y’all went to Harvard and Stanford
Think harder for answers man, think
We’re far below standards
Don’t tell me anger won’t help us
You told me the cancer would shrink
We need a shrink
We just see boys making bands: N’Sync
Open your eyes my fam, we all could be gone in a blink

As I alluded to before, the lyrical themes go deep on this album and requires repeat listens to fully take it all in. I don’t think I can even come close to doing this album justice in a short review. My hope would be, if this sounds interesting to you in anyway, go give it a listen. It’s worth digging into and chewing on a bit and you get some great music along the way.

 

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My Top 30 Albums of 2018 – Part I

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I’ve been doing a list like this every year for roughly 10 years now and I think this year was possibly the hardest one I’ve done. There was a lot of really good music this year and unlike years past there wasn’t a particular album or albums that immediately jumped out as album of the year. As the year went I kept shuffling the list around and had a hard time narrowing down any kind of order. As a music lover that’s good problem to have. I also made a few changes to my approach this year. This is my first time doing a Top 30 list and I’ve decided to allow EPs and soundtracks to be considered for contention. I primarily do these lists for myself and don’t intend them to be comprehensive by any means… I can only listen to so much music in a year, ha! But I figure if I can turn one person onto to something new then I’ve contributed a little something to supporting good art. If not, then I still had a lot of fun doing it. So if you’re here reading, thanks! I hope you enjoy and find something you like.

30. Cloud Nothings – Last Building Burning

Cloud Nothings provide the indie scene with a good dose of edginess and aggressiveness that it is sometimes lacking. That is especially true for their latest album Last Building Burning which is their heaviest to date.

29. Sho Baraka and Vanessa Hill – So Many Feelings

Sho Baraka an Vanessa Hill take on the persona of a fictional married couple on So Many Feelings, which explores the ins and outs of married life. The interplay between the two is perfect and is complemented with great production. The moral of the story? Marriage can be challenging at times, but it’s always worth fighting for.

28. Emery – Eve

Emery is back with perhaps their most ambitious album to date. At first it feels a little all over the place, but with each listen it starts to make more sense how each of the many parts makes up the whole. Emery may have gotten their start in the emo, screamo, or whatever scene you want to call it, but now they are simply making creative rock music with a quiver full of arrows at their disposal.

27. Lykke Li – So Sad, So Sexy

Lykke Li seems to like making sad songs, and she happens to do it very well. On So Sad, So Sexy she takes her unique style of pop and marries it with a mix of modern pop sounds and hip hop inspired production.

26. Four Fists – 6666

P.O.S and Astronautalis, collectively known as Four Fists, have finally released their long awaited album, 6666 and it was worth the wait. It’s aggressive, urgent, and fast past… just what you’d expect from these two juggernauts of the Twin Cities hip hop scene.

25. Tancred – Nightstand

Jess Abbot has really come into her own as a solo artist. Over the past three Tancred albums she’s gone from emo to pop punk to indie rock and every where in between. Her latest album, Nightstand is her most vulnerable yet, taking the listener on a raw emotive ride that’ll keep your head bobbing and your heart stirring.

24. Taelor Gray – The Love Don’t Last Long

Besides moonlighting as a rapper, Taelor Gray is a black pastor of an all white Church, just to give you an idea of the kinds of things he might be thinking about. As you might imagine he covers such topics of race and faith and the cultural impact of both. Gray doesn’t sugar coat anything or hide his emotion in bombastic beats. Rather his delivery along with the production is more subdued, highlighting the depth of what he’s talking about.

23. Metric – Art of Doubt

I lost track of Metric over their past couple of albums, but decided to check out their new one and I realized I’ve been missing out. In many ways Art of Doubt is pretty much the Metric I remember from 10 years ago or so. That could be a bad thing, but there’s also something about a band that has truly honed their craft to perfection. Whether your a rocker or you just love hitting the dance floor, there’s a little something for everyone here.

22. Andy Mineo – I: The Arrow and II: The Sword

Andy Mineo is the midst of releasing a series of four EPs the first two of which came out this year. The first part titled The Arrow finds Mineo opening up about his struggles with depression, anxiety, and doubt. His rapping is spot on and the production of each song complements the emotions behind his words. Part two, The Sword dives more into personal and interpersonal struggles with pop and rock influenced production. Through his journey of ups and downs Mineo, continues to come back to is need for God which ultimately becomes the central theme of this project.

21. Snail Mail – Lush

Lush is an example of Lo-Fi indie pop at it’s finest. Lindsey Jordan who performs as Snail Mail, delivers emotional music in a somewhat delicate package, yet despite being only 19, she comes across as completely composed and confident. The confidence comes out in subtle ways on Lush, whether it’s a cool guitar part in just the right spot, or the way the melody grabs you in an unexpected way. Jordan take an otherwise simple album and give each moment exactly what it needs to make it something special.

20. Big Red Machine – Big Red Machine

Big Red Machine is the latest project from Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. This time he’s joined by The National’s Aaron Dessner. I haven’t seen an official list of credits, but from bits and pieces of what I’ve read Vernon and Dessner are also joined on this album by some of the best and brightest indie artists out there. What they’ve created is cacophony of beautiful sounds with Vernon’s unmistakable vocals leading the way.

19. Moda Spira – Divorce

I’ve heard a few albums over the years that have dealt with divorce, but none as direct as Latifah Alattas’ second album as Moda Spira, aptly titled, Divorce. This album is deeply heartbreaking as Alattas processes through the end of her marriage. She sings things she actually said, and things she actually felt, and you can feel the rawness of the emotions in her voice. The arrangements and production provide a beautiful back drop to this difficult journey giving the album a lightness without masking it’s intent.

18. Matthew Thiessen and the Earthquakes – Wind Up Bird

Matthew Thiessen, of Relient K has released a handful of solo songs over the years, mostly sad piano ballads. That changed this year when Theissen released the first ever Matthew Theissen and the Earthquakes album Wind Up Bird and it’s pretty different from those one off songs. It’s upbeat and folksy and features lovely backing by Ellie Schmidly. The lyrics are playful which Thiessen is know for, but they are shrouded in metaphor making this one of his most creative works to date.

17. Meg Myers – Take Me to the Disco

I’m still shocked this album hasn’t gotten more buzz. For her album Take Me to the Disco, Meg Myers culls influences from the previous three decades worth of music. There’s 80s synth pop, grunge and alternative of the 90s and pop punk of the 00s. Mix that with fiery song writing and pop sensibility, and you have a catchy, angsty good time.

16. Neko Case – Hell-On

I always forget how good a song writer Neko Case is. Every time she puts out a new album I’m pleasantly surprised and quickly drawn in. There’s a warmth to her voice and in her brand of Americana and yet she exhibits a fierceness that’s unmatched. I mean just look at the album cover, then spend some time digging into the lyrics. She’s a strong woman who doesn’t mess around and isn’t one to messed with. This comes out beautifully in her music and is part of what makes it so special.

15. Sandra McCracken – Songs from the Valley

I’ve known of Sandra McCracken for a long time but only discovered her music for the first time this year. I’ve been really gripped by her song writing. This album in particular comes from a place of sorrow and the struggle of moving on. She captures those emotions perfectly, which I’m sure wasn’t easy to do. At the same time it sounds as if these songs came so effortlessly. Her voice, the lyrics, and the arrangements come together seamlessly to fully capture her very personal journey.

14. LUMP – LUMP

LUMP is a collaboration between solo artist Laura Marling and Mike Lindsay of the band Tunng. I’m a big fan of Laura Marling so I was really excited about this project. It’s great hearing Marling lend her voice and lyrics to music that’s very different from her own. Lindsay who provides the music for LUMP has created an experimental soundscape full of effected guitars and synths. The music is funky and strange at times, but Marling’s vocals and melodies bring it all together making for a memorable listening experience.

13. Derek Minor – The Trap

The Trap is part three of Derek Minor’s Up and Away series. It is the longest album in the series so far and maybe the most fully realized. Lyrically he really hits on the subject of racial inequality and how he and his community have been impacted by it. It’s really great to hear a Christian voice on these matters and one who’s able to do it with great music to back it up. The Trap does a give nod to trap music through out the album, but also covers many other genres, which you don’t often find in hip-hop.

12. Hop Along – Bark Your Head Off, Dog

Frances Quinlan has one of the most unique voices in indie rock. It’s raspy and strained at times, while at others it’s soft and restrained. She also sings rhythmically in a way that feels a bit like spoken word. This works well with her often literally lyrics, which read more like poems rather than pop songs. She has the execution of seasoned rapper knowing the best way for her voice to sound when saying specific words and lines. Hop Along’s music rounds out their creative sound. On Bark Your Head Off, Dog their influences range from folk to surf rock, and like so many other bands are doing these days, they pepper in a little 90s alt goodness.

11. Black Panther Soundtrack

Kendrick Lamar serves as the curator for the Black Panther Soundtrack and right there you know it’s not going to disappoint. Lamar hold up his end of the bargain by bringing in some of the most talented artists in hip-hop and R&B. Additionally Lamar adds his own razor sharp rapping along with his artfully crafted lyrics. It doesn’t sound as much like a Kendrick Lamar album but rather a collaborative effort with each artist and producer bringing his or her own flair to each song. The soundtrack also serves as a nice companion piece to the film. It follows the film’s themes and gets into the heads of some of the main characters. Like the movie the album is filed with tension, passion, and energy. I really love this album and there was a point in the year I thought this would make number one. Hopefully that gives a little taste of how good the top 10 will be!

 

My Top 25 Albums of 2017 (10-1)

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10. Lorde Melodrama

Lorde is one of a handful of artists who have squashed the notion that pop music is all hits and no substance. She brings a level of artistry to the genre pushing outside it’s own comfort zone. Her songs are catchy and yet are well crafted, so much so that if you strip them down they still hold up (see Melodrama Reimagined on youtube). This is especially amazing because of Lorde’s age. At just 21 Lorde is already a master of melody. The melodies on Melodrama are both memorable and unpredictable. She also knows exactly what a song needs and when. The production and arrangements are almost orchestral as they perfectly ebb and flow with the album’s lyrical themes. Melodrama is in part, a break up album, which typically wouldn’t be all that interesting. However, Lorde’s poetic lyrics give her story telling an emotional depth that when paired with the music makes for a compelling listen. She’s also surprisingly vulnerable as she opens up about the pitfalls of fame and how living it up isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Lorde acknowledges her own weaknesses and short comings as she spent the later part of her teens in the throws of stardom. Many pop artists take years to develop the kind of deft hand Lorde has as at song writing, and she’s just getting started.

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9. St. Vincent – Masseducation

Annie Clark’s last couple of St. Vincent albums have had a bit of a robotic feel both emotionally and musically. They were enjoyable albums and yet felt cold and distant. Masseducation on the other hand feels much the opposite. Clark opens up in a way she never has before. There’s an intimacy to songs like “New York”, “Happy Birthday, Johnny”, and “Slow Disco” as she sings about friendships, loss, and longing. On the flip side she also touches on topics like humanity’s pension for escapism and the desire for easy fixes. The subject matter on Masseducation is much more relatable and doesn’t lean as heavily on the music to carry the album. That said, the music is fantastic. Clark has always had a great pop sensibility, but this album has a more distinct pop vibe then her past work. Part of the reason is it’s much less guitar focused. Clark is known for her ability to shred, however, on Masseducation she pulls it back quite a bit, letting the songs breath and not needlessly adding guitar where it may not be needed. This demonstrates Clark’s maturity as a song writer and her willingness to stretch herself in new ways.

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8. The Lulls in Traffic – Rabbit in the Snare

Aaron Marsh is best know as the front man for the band Copeland. A few years ago when Copeland was on hiatus Marsh teased a side project with rapper Ivan Ives. I believe they released one song at the time, but after Copeland got back together the side project faded from memory. Then early this year I was poking around the internet, as you do, and learned the mysterious side project had a name, The Lulls in Traffic and had released a proper full length album. Being a huge Copeland fan I immediately put it on and was floored! Rabbit in the Snare easily gets the award for most original album of the year. A very simplistic description of their music is, it sounds like Copeland with rapping. That in and of itself is intriguing, but it’s so much more. Copeland makes moody indie rock led by Marsh’s striking vocals. The Lulls in Traffic takes Copeland’s sound and makes it more rhythmic and beat driven. It’s still beautiful and stirring, but it makes your head bob. Take that along with Marsh’s vocals and add rapping by Ivan Ives. It’s a bit jarring at first, and yet it totally works. Ives’ style reminds me of mix of spoken word and grime (rap style out of London). His voice is deep adding a really poignant contrast to Marsh’s singing and fits well with the music. Their lyrics are more on the heavy side, with many songs about broken relationships, regret, and introspection. The lyrical themes and music meld perfectly together. I hope this isn’t a one off album and that these guys continue making music together.

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7. Manchester Orchestra – A Black Mile to the Surface

Manchester Orchestra are know for their heartfelt, deeply personal lyrics. Musically they have no problem either hitting you in the face with a wall of heavy guitars or presenting you with a moving acoustic number. On their fifth album Manchester Orchestra have taken a more experimental route. There’s a dream like quality to A Black Mile to the Surface. The rock elements you expect from Manchester Orchestra are still in place, but the empty spaces are now filled with ethereal sounds and layered vocals. There’s also a distinctly cinematic quality to this album, which makes sense when considering frontman Andy Hull and guitarist Robert McDowell’s recent foray into scoring film (they scored the 2016 film Swiss Army Man). A Black Mile… is also a concept album of sorts, further adding to it’s cinematic nature. Many of the album’s themes are centered around the gold mining down of Lead, SD. On one hand these songs are much less autobiographical than Hull has written in the past, but within in the narrative you can still find him covering personal territory. One of the more notable examples of this is him opening up about his fears and insecurities of becoming a father for this first time. A Black Mile to the Surface is one of Manchester Orchestra’s biggest departures as a band and they pulled it off beautifully!

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6. Japandroids – Near to the Wild Heart of Life

This album came at a good time. Prior to releasing Near to the Wild Heart of Life, Japandroids hadn’t released an album in four years and it was somewhat unclear if and when we’d get new music from them. But it was as if they knew we needed this kind of album after the kind of year 2016 was and the start 2017 got off to. Near to… is a great crack open a cold one, throw your cares away, and throw you fist up in the air kind of album. For the most part it sticks to the relatively simple Japandroids formula of crank it to 11 garage rock with Brian King on lead vocals and guitar, and David Prowse on Drums and backing vocals. The most noticeable difference is that they sound a little less punk and little more classic rock, which works great. Three albums in and the production has continued to get tighter without sounding mainstream. Despite being just a two piece band they are starting to sound like they’d fit right at home in an arena. They’ve also matured significantly in the lyrics department. Near to… is more grown up sounding. I’m sure these guys still do their fair share of drinking and partying, but they’re now singing about settling down and longing for home.

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5. Kings Kaleidoscope – The Beauty Between

Kings Kaleidoscope are already back after releasing the excellent Beyond Control just last year. This time they’ve opted for a mix tape titled The Beauty Between. Kings Kaleidoscope mastermind Chad Gardner had been doing some production for rapper Andy Mineo, which gave him some inspiration outside of what Kings typically does, thus the mix tape format. The Beauty Between also employs more samples as well as guest spots from a number of incredible rappers, including the aforementioned Mineo, Propaganda, Braille, and more. The result is a stunning work taking these new elements and melding them with Kings’ usual soaring arrangements. This album is also a further departure from Kings’ beginnings as a worship band. Yet, their lyrics are still dripping with faith inspired songs that almost transcend the idea of worship as a genre. They also take on some social commentary this time around on the song “Playing With Fire” which features Propaganda. Propaganda’s verses dive into his perspective of racial issues as a black man while Gardner’s verses share his perspective coming from a place of privilege.   It’s a tension I think many people can relate with and in someway feels hopeless, but I love how Propaganda ends the song, “While living in the tension of the world’s imperfection / Locking in the sovereign reign of the King of All Kings / Trusting He’ll make right all things /He’ll make right all things.” Kings Kaleidoscope are making some of the most compelling, creative music not just amongst Christian artists, but in music in general. I can’t wait to hear what the they do next!

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4. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

In Rob Bell’s book “What is the Bible?” there’s a part where he talks about the graphic violent images in the book of Revelation. Here’s a paraphrase of what he says, ” If you’re in a country where military groups are setting homes on fire and violating the helpless, you need encouragement, but it has to be encouragement that matches in intensity the evil that you’re experiencing.” This is what Kendrick Lamar’s music is like to me. He uses language and story telling that match the intensity of what he’s talking about. Which means there’s a lot of graphic language, but not without purpose. His latest album DAMN. is further example of this. Much like his previous albums the narrative is very much his own story. In the case of DAMN. two major themes arise; that of faith and of vices. There’s an element of critique as Lamar points out other’s vices, but also points the finger squarely back at himself. Lamar is an incredible lyricist and DAMN. is packed full of words without sounding wordy. Not a single word or line is wasted and of course Lamar’s delivery is the best in the game. What ultimately unfolds through the album is a telling of the destructive nature of the human race consumed by sin, but how it’s all held together. The production on DAMN. is the best of Lamar’s career so far. While 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly was very funk, jazz, and soul influenced, DAMN. has a much more modern sound. It’s fast paced, aggressive, and fits perfectly with the intensity of Lamar’s lyrics and rapping.

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3. Propaganda – Crooked

Starting out your album with a six and half minute song spelling out how messed we are as humans is bold way to start an album, and yet Propaganda went for it and pulled it off. The title track on Crooked leaves you feeling pretty uncomfortable and yet compelled to keep listening. This is also one of the reasons I ranked this album higher than Kendrick Lamar’s. As I mentioned previously, Lamar’s approach is to deliver a narrative that happens to be very explicit and it works for what he’s trying to do. On the other hand Propaganda manages to cover similar hard hitting issues and making you feel uncomfortable without uttering a single expletive. In my mind, especially in hip-hop, that’s not an easy thing to do. In an interview Propaganda describes himself as a reflective thinker, so much of the subject matter on Crooked covers his thoughts on issues that arose in 2015 and 2016. He explores such topics as racial injustice, gentrification, misguided politics, navigating marriage, parenting and maintaining a perceptive of hope through it all. Another striking track is “Cynical” which features phenominal guest spots from Sho Baraka and Aaron Marsh. It’s one of those songs that demands your attention and makes you dwell on what’s being said. The song challenges the left, the right, the Christian, and the non-Christian. The song is saying, in the face of all this, how can we not be cynical. It’s a sentiment I think we’ve all felt in recent years, at least a little bit. Thankfully Propaganda doesn’t leave us with just cynicism. The tension continues to build throughout the album and there are some lighter moments along side the heavy. On the second to last track “Made Straight” he gives this proclamation, “But the hope of trans-cultural love and acceptance / That erased racism and sexism, the blessed / Day we don’t look down on the poor like we ain’t like them / And they not us and gender ain’t fodder for suicide among us / The already but not yet, so we look for it with joy and anticipation / For when the time keeper comes soon and make the crooked way straight.” Propaganda mixed it up production wise, utilizing numerous producers giving Crooked a dynamic sound rounding out an excellent album.

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2. Brother Ali – All the Beauty in this Whole Life

So this is the third hip-hop album in a row, so what makes Brother Ali’s All the Beauty in this Whole Life better than Crooked and DAMN.? For one, I think this album has more balance. Much like Propaganda and Kendrick Lamer, Brother Ali covers some rather heavy territory, but musically it’s more upbeat without sacrificing the message. Brother Ali has been away for awhile and in the mean time he’s grown in his faith as a Muslim. This comes through a lot on this album. He’s completely dropped any swearing from his lyrics and sounds more true to himself as a result. Another reason I ranked this album where I did, was because of the emotional vulnerability Ali displays. He hits on racial and political issues, but they come across as deeply personal. Like on the song “Dear Black Son,” in which Ali explains to his son the hardships he’ll face as the result of his skin color, but encourages him to not let that define him. Or the song “Out of Here” which is letter to his Dad who committed suicide and who’s Dad also committed suicide. It’s a heartbreaking look at a deeply troubled legacy. Through the pain though Ali finds hope. Though my faith differs from his I still recognize the hope he writes about and find truth in what he’s saying. The title track and last song on the album feels like a worship song to me, “All the beauty in this whole life / Is reflecting your light / Cool tears obscure my sight / It’s the only way I see you right.” Ali has reunited with long time collaborate Ant who brings some exceptional production to the table. The music is rich and organic, employing many live instruments, particularly keys, which marries harmoniously with Ali’s words.

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1. Laura Marling – Semper Femina

I first heard Laura Marling on her brilliant I Speak Because I Can. She was just 20 years old at the time. She set the bar very high at the beginning of her career as a young singer song writer and yet she’s continued to get better with each album. Semper Femina is her sixth album in just under 10 years and it’s her best yet. What sets Marling apart is her song writing. She’s always been wise beyond her years, writing songs that are beautiful, mysterious, and sometimes brooding. Marling has covered loose concepts on previous albums, but Semper Femina is the first that carries the concept through much of the whole album. The term “Semper Femina” roughly translates as “woman is ever a fickle and changeable thing.” Marling takes this idea and fleshes it out and examines what woman is, and what femininity is. The perspective is mostly hers, but she also writes from both other women’s perspectives and men’s perspectives. There’s an empathy toward women which unfolds over the course of the album. It isn’t so much a feminist manifesto, but rather a woman opening up about how she sees and relates to her own gender in a way only a woman can. She identifies the good and beautiful, along with the flaws. There’s so much depth in Marling’s song writing on Semper Femina that new things jump out with each listen and it’s an easy album to get lost it. I think it’s also important to point out that these songs come from her and her alone. Not that I have any problem with people co-writing songs, the last three albums where hip-hop albums after all. However, there’s something pure about someone writing such incredible songs themselves and bringing their vision to life. Another aspect to Marling’s music that puts her above the rest is her vocals. She has one of the most consistantly stunning voices I’ve ever heard. And it isn’t just that she has a good voice, she knows how to use her vocals in a way that complements her song writing. This is especially true on Semper Femina, as she skillfully varies the volume and tone of her voice at just the right moments. She also plays with the phrasing of her words, which enhances the feel of the songs. Musically Semper Femina could easily stand alone with just Marling sining and playing acoustic guitar. But as with her song writing she’s grown in her ability to know how her music will be best be presented. Like her previous album, Semper Femina is progression in Marling going with a full band feel. I especially love the funky bass line on the opening track “Soothing” and the backing vocal harmonies on the country tinged “Wild Fire.” Finally a couple observations. I’m a little shocked this album made very few end of the year lists despite having an average score of 85 according to Metacritic. Jay-Z, Taylor Swift, and The War on Drugs all had lower average scores, but all made numerous end of the year lists. Perhaps folk music doesn’t get as much notoriety as other genres. On the plus side Semper Femina earned Marling her first Grammy nomination for best folk album, I’ll definitely be rooting for her!

 

My Top 25 Albums of 2017 (25-11)

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25. Eisley – I’m Only Dreaming

Sherri DuPree-Bemis and Garron DuPree are the only remaining members of the once five piece, mostly sibling band. It’s a different sound for Eisley for sure, and they still have some kinks to work out, but they’re off to a great new start.

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24. P.O.S – Chill, dummy

P.O.S is back with his first solo album since 2012 and his first since having a kidney transplant. It’s one of his best albums to date. As you might imagine, being sick and almost dying provides a lot of creative energy.

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23. HAIM – Something to Tell You

HAIM have over come the sophomore slump with a solid follow up to their breakout debut. They’ve continued to build upon their signature R&B infused pop-rock sound while demonstrating growth as musicians and song writers.

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22. Lecrae – All Things Work Together

On his major label debut, Lecrae has stepped confidently out of the “Christian Rapper” box into the mainstream without comprising his faith, values, or artistic integrity. And as always he wears his heart firmly on his sleeve with lyrics as vulnerable as you can get.

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21. Aaron Sprinkle – Real Life

Legendary producer Aaron Sprinkle — synonymous with Tooth and Nail Records — likes to get out from behind the board from time to time. On his latest solo album Sprinkle creates some nice synthy pop sounds. Lyrically he opens up about struggles with alcohol addition.

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20. Arcade Fire – Everything Now

I have a bit of a love hate relationship with Arcade Fire, which I’ve written about before. Regarding their latest release, Everything Now, I’ll just say this, I really like it. It encompasses everything I love about Arcade Fire and nothing I hate.

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19. Cloud Nothings – Life Without Sound

Cloud Nothings perfectly balance grittiness with just a touch of polish. They are one of the few bands that fit nicely in both the punk an indie scenes. That continues to be the case on Life Without Sound perhaps polishing things up a bit more from their last release. Many an indie band wish they sounded this good.

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18. Run the Jewels – 3

I’m finaling getting on the Run the Jewels train and it’s been a fun ride. The production on 3 is fast paced and aggressive and the rapping of El-P and Killer Mike follows suit. The guys have some hard hitting lyrics as well. With an album released just before the current administration took office, I can’t help but anticipate what they’ll say on 4.

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17. Comeback Kid – Outsider

For a lot of punk and hardcore bands it can be hard to reinvent themselves without completely changing genres. Often the best they can do is hone their craft and be consistent. Comeback Kid certainly has been consistent in their career and have grown as song writers. On Outsider they take it a step further by adding some unexpected pop inspiration to their very heavy sound, and it works quite nicely.

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16. Derek Minor – Up and Away Series

This year Derek Minor released two EPs, Your Soul Must Fly and High Above as part of a series titled Up and Away. I grouped these two EPs together as one “full length” album. The EPs remind of a lot of a mix tape in that Minor seems to have more freedom to be creative and take risks than he maybe would on a true album. This is some of his best work, from the production, rapping, special guests, and lyrical content. I’m excited to see what else comes from this series in the year to come.

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15. ’68 – Two Parts Viper

A ’68 album is kind of like a tornado; one, in the chaotic nature of the music and two, the music is a swirling mix of genres. Two Parts Viper is impressive musically, but it’s the lyrics that really set it apart. The track listing when read together forms a poem of sorts, which sets the tone for the album’s theme. Front man Josh Scogin paints a somewhat bleak picture of the plight of mankind, but also offers hope. Hope in what cannot be seen, hope in each other, hope in love.

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14. Andy Mineo and Wordsplayed – Magic & Bird

Magic & Bird is a mix tape by Andy Mineo and Wordsplayed and it’s a lot of fun! As I mentioned previously with Derek Minor, the mix tape format really allowed these artists to let their hair down. Thematically Magic & Bird plays homage to, well… the rivalry of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and the glory days of the NBA. The songs are fun and cheeky, while being technically proficient in production and rhyming. The guys have some serious moments as well, rounding out an excellent mix tape.

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13. The Brilliance – All is Not Lost

The Brilliance are back with more of their beautiful arrangements and lyrics that find them both worshiping and wrestling. It my sound strange but there’s a distinct early 80s soft rock vibe on All is Not Lost, like maybe they were listening to a lot of Phil Collins while recording… I don’t know, but it somehow works amazingly well.

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12. Taelor Gray – In the Way of Me

This may be the best hip-hop album of 2017 that no one has heard of. If you like hip-hop and haven’t heard of Taelor Gray, cue up In the Way of Me immediately. The production is relatively simple, but filled with a sense of urgency. The simplicity also serves to highlight Gray’s rapping and his lyrics in which he tackles issues of faith, justice, politics, and his own personal struggles.

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11. Julien Baker – Turn Out the Lights

Julien Baker embodies restraint in her music while at the same time bearing her soul through her lyrics. The arrangements on Turn Out the Lights are minimal, with guitars and piano pretty much being the only instruments. The music sets the tone that starts to pull on the heart strings even before Baker sings and when she does, it’s heartbreakingly beautiful. If we didn’t know what “emo” was, then this would be emo. Baker’s vulnerability is unmistakable as she sings about depression, anxiety, self worth, identity, and how those things effect her relationships.

 

 

 

 

Fallen Heroes

Over this past weekend accusations of sexual misconduct were made against Jesse Lacy, frontman of the band Brand New. Not long after Lacy released a statement, not addressing the specific accusations or the victim in question, but acknowledging he has a history of sexual addiction, which led him to take advantage of numerous women and to be unfaithful in most all of his relationships.

Brand New is one of my favorite bands of all time. Their album The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me is one I’ve regarded as the best album of the 2000s and possible my favorite album of all time. Subsequently Jesse Lacy is someone I considered to hero to some degree. The accusations against him were devastating to me. I didn’t need his statement to know they were true, as a vast majority of sexual abuse accusations are true statistically. The victims in these situations should always, always be given the benefit of the doubt. Lacy’s statement simply confirmed the truth and gave some clarity to it. Sadly this is all too common. Men in positions of power taking advantage of women. Lately, there seems to be a steady flow of accusations being made, particularly against men in the entertainment industry. On one hand I’m glad these women are finally feeling empowered to speak out, on the other hand it’s heartbreaking to think of how these women have been hurt, and to think of the many more out there who haven’t spoken up. So what do we do?

Coming at this from a Christian perspective I want to make a couple things clear. First, we are all sinners, we all fall short, none of us can claim to be superior to another in this regard. Secondly, no one is beyond redemption. That being said, there are certain sins that are systemic and particularly destructive and there should be an effort to put a stop to those things. One of those is the abuse of power that leads to sexual violence against others. The reason this is so sinister is that it strips the victims of their humanity, it leaves them powerless, hopeless, and physically and emotionally scared in a way that many of us can’t imagine. Also, we live in on a culture that gives the benefit of the doubt to those in power. Victims of sexual violence often aren’t believed and are placed with the burden of proof. So when we think of these abusers, usually men in positions of power; Louis CK, Kevin Spacey, Bill Cosby, Jessy Lacy, to name a few, how do we respond? In the examples I gave, these men are beloved entertainers, they’ve produced art that we love, art that’s moved us, made us smile, given us fond memories. And now what?

For me, I’m not sure I can listen to Brand New’s music again… maybe someday, but I’m not sure. I just know I don’t want to to shrug my shoulders and say, oh well. I don’t want what these men did to be okay, or just written off and forgotten about. A couple nights ago I read a post by Jason Tate who runs the music site chorus.fm (formerly absolutepunk.net). He too is a huge Brand New fan and he wrote about his thoughts on the recent events and something he said really resonated with me, “…I don’t want to contribute to the normalization of acts like this. If we just go on, everything that happened fades to the back of everyone’s memory. There’s no accountability…” Like I said before, these men aren’t beyond redemption and none of us are better than them, but again, what they’ve done is incredibly destructive and it’s important we don’t normalize that kind of behavior. We need to stand up and say, this is not okay, and it needs to stop. I’m not sure what that looks like exactly, but for me right now, it means no longer supporting a band I once loved. It means not supporting systems or individuals who perpetuate sexual violence. As a father it means raising my sons to respect women, and to see all human beings as Children of God and who are all made in His image. To teach against objectification in a world where it’s rampant. And it means praying for those who’ve been hurt. That they would find healing, peace, rest, and forgiveness for those who have hurt them. And to pray for the abusers. That they would be accountable to their actions, seek forgiveness from those they’ve hurt and seek forgiveness for themselves.

One quick closing thought. This isn’t something that is exclusive to entertainers, athletes, and politicians. This is happening in our own communities, which is all the more reason there needs to be accountability.

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.

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!