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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!