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!

 

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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!

Monsters of Folk

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When I first heard about Monsters of Folk earlier this year I thought to myself, “this sounds like the most epic super-group of all time.” But I also thought, “this sounds like the most epic failure of all time.” It seemed too good to be true. The members include, Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes fame, Jim James of My Morning Jacket and finally M. Ward known for his solo work but more recently for his collaboration with Zooey Deschanel called She and Him. By all accounts these guys are well on their way to being, if not already indie rock icons. But can a group handle that many egos pining for the spotlight? As it turns out, it can!

Where most supergroups tend to go wrong Monsters of Folk have done everything right and recorded possible one of the best albums of the year. The collaboration between these artist is flawless and never comes across as one guy trying to be the center of attention. Oberst, Ward and James each split singing and song writing duties, taking turns singing nice harmonies and lead on each other’s songs, while Mogis takes his usual unassuming role as producer and electric guitar master.

I’m a big fan of Conor Oberst so I was particularly fond of his songs on this album. Oberst has put out a lot of material in the past couple of years and I’m always amazed by his consistency writing great songs like the track “Tamezcal” is one of the best on the album.

Jim James is the one contributor I was least familiar with and after listing to this album I realized he is an artist I definitely need be more familar with. He sings in both a falsetto style and in a twangy country-style and every time his voice is heard whether singing lead or background it’s a real treat. James also provides some of the albums most thought-provoking lyrics. He explore themes of God on such tracks as “Dear God (sincerely M.O.F.)” and “His Master’s Voice.”

M. Ward’s signature sound is always a delight and is nicely sprinkled throughout. His song about a weary traveler “The Sandman, The Brakeman and Me” is especially nice.

Though the group is called Monsters of Folk (clearly ment to be tongue-in-check) this isn’t a folk album, although it does have some folk elements. The sound is pretty much what you’d expect from these artists, exploring mostly country, indie rock and classic rock. If you are a fan of any of these styles of music or are a fan of any of these artists I would highly recommend this album. It exceeded my expectations by leaps and bounds and is something I think a lot of people could get into.

Thrice – Beggars

Thrice-BeggarsIt was hard to say what direction Thrice would take after the ambitious four volume, 26 song “Alchemy Index” released in two parts, in 2007 and 2008.  The Alchemy Index explored a number of different genres including electronic and folk while also remaining true to their roots with some very aggressive numbers as well as some straight rock tunes.  Thrice could have very easily stuck with any number of sounds they’ve explored in the past but with the release of “Beggars” it is clear, they have continued to progress by once again reinventing themselves.

Beggars is exactly the album Thrice needed to make at this point in their career.  The band very much wanted to shed the overall vibe of their past couple of albums which becomes strikingly obvious as the bass guitar kicks off the first track “All the World is Mad.”  Simply put, this album has soul.  It grooves from start to finish embodying a distinctly more upbeat sound.  Brothers Edward and Riley Breckenridge who play bass guitar and drums respectively, shine on this album.  Each song is dominated by killer bass grooves and loud precision drumming, which is especially nice considering the more subdued rhythm section on The Alchemy Index.  Another noticeable change is the strong influence of blues, jazz and roots music.  The blues influence particularly stands out in Dustin Kensrue’s vocals.

As upbeat as this album is, it also has a dark side.  Lyrically, Kensrue writes of a dark and dreary world full of pain and heartache.  The chorus of “All the World is Mad” proclaims, “Something’s gone terribly wrong with everyone; all the world is mad. Darkness brings terrible things; the sun is gone- what vanity! wretched fires.” On the flip side there are number of tracks that speak of hope beyond this life. “Wood and Wire” tells of an innocent man on death row who longs for endless glory.

While Thrice’s past material may not have been as accessible due to it’s aggressive nature, Beggars will appeal to a broader audience. If you are someone who loves rock music, then consider checking out this album, you won’t be disappointed.

Imogen Heap – Ellipse

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Whether intentional or not Imogen Heap’s third solo release Ellipse is highly influenced by 90s female pop artists. Heap’s vocals are often reminiscent of such singers as Alanis Morissette, Paula Cole and Enya. The chorus of the opening track “First Train Home” sounds very similar to the Donna Lewis hit “I Love You Always Forever” as Heap instead sings “first train home, I’ve got to get on it.” The song “Swoon” would have fit comfortably on an Ace of Base album. As obvious as these influences are and as much as they serve to provide a catchy more accessible sound, Heap’s unique brand of electronic music remains intact. Ellipse is full of bleeps and bloops, vocal effects, and synth beats that flow from danceable to ethereal. However, the album does suffer from over-production, especially an over use of vocal effects.

Lyrically, the album has a less angry “Jagged Little Pill” feel to it, exploring the ins and outs of a romantic relationship. Heap is cleaver at times, but occasionally comes off as cheesy. The chorus of “Bad Body Double” is juvenile while the chorus of “Half Life” which proclaims, “It’s a half life, with you as my quarterback, It’s a daft life” is just silly.

Imogen Heap is definitely a talented artist and musician, unfortunately, “Ellipse” often falls flat. With that said, there are still some strong moments here and will likely appeal to fans of Heap’s music. Some stand out tracks include “Tidal,” “Between the Sheets” and “2-1.”

Follow the link to hear Ellipse for yourself and let me know what you think.