My Top 25 Albums of 2017 (10-1)


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!



My Top 25 Albums of 2017 (25-11)


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.





My Top 25 Albums of 2016 (10-1)


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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!


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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”.


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!

Top 10 Albums of 2011

10) The Civil Wars – Barton Hollow

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


9) The Bell Brigade – The Bell Brigade

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


8) Switchfoot – Vice Verses

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


7) Thrice – Major/Minor

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


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

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

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


5) Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes

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


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

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


3) Haley Bonar – Golder

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


2) St. Vincent – Strange Mercy

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


1) Bon Iver – Bon Iver, Bon Iver

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

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

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

Top 25 Albums of 2010

I’ve been doing a top 10 list of best albums of the year for the past five years or so. But 2010 was a particularly awesome year in music and I felt it was deserving of a top 25. This undertaking has been more intense than I had anticipated, so much so it’s taken me until 2011 to finish, but here it is. It’s a lot to take in, I may have even gone a little over board, but it was fun and I hope you enjoy it.

25) Norma Jean – Meridional

After years of shredding vocals and shredding guitars one would think Norma Jean would start letting up at some point, but with their latest release, Meridional the sound is as fierce as ever. The band has said this album was a return to their roots, which is true in the sense of not being as experimental, but it also demonstrates a progression. They’ve never sounded tighter and it’s clear they continue to get better and better at their craft with each release.

24) Avi Buffalo – Avi Buffalo

Avi Buffalo is band made up of barely out of high school kids fronted by the mousy Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg. I say mousy because of his high-pitched vocals and also his stature. But don’t be fooled, this kid can write some killer tunes. Their debut self-titled album takes indie pop and puts a retro, sometimes psychedelic spin on it. When listening to this album it’s easy to forget these guys and gals are only in their late teens, although lyrically their youth shines through, exploring the many awkward facets of being a teenager, without much left to the imagination. Avi Buffalo will certainly be a band to watch in the coming years.

23) Matt & Kim – Sidewalks

With Matt & Kim, what you see is what you get; a two-piece band made up of a guy named Matt who sings and plays a myriad of keyboards and a girl named Kim who plays drums. Their music is fast, full of boundless energy and hooks. On their latest album however, they’ve taken things in a bit of new direction. The core is still intact, but they’ve traded in the fast, almost punk sound for a dancier sort of sound. The keyboards are bigger and filled with more effects and samples, while a drum machine has mostly replaced live drums. Not as solid of a release as their previous effort, but still a lot fun and catchy as ever.

22) Best Coast – Crazy For You

Best Coast is one of many bands in 2010 that took part in what seemed to be a coincidental resurgence of 60s surf rock made popular by the Beach Boys. Crazy For You from beginning to end congers up faded footage of surfboard covered beaches. Each song is as catchy as the next, filled with fuzzed out guitars and vocals. All the while front women Bethany Cosentino croons over boys she likes.

21) Hammock – Chasing After Shadows… Living with Ghosts

A friend of mine turned me onto Hammock last year and when I heard they had a new album coming out I decided to pick it up. Hammock is a mostly instrumental band, and to be honest I’m not a hug fan of instrumental music, but on this album I was struck by the beautiful soundscapes they’re able to create. Hammock builds upon simple rock songs by adding strings, keys and various ethereal sounds and effects. The result is ambient songs that fill the listener’s imagination with any number of images and emotions. That can be a difficult thing to accomplish even for bands singing lyrics, but Hammock has done it with no words at all.

20) Mumford and Sons – Sigh No More

If there was one band who really blew up this year it was Mumford and Sons, especially here in the Twin Cities. Mumford and Sons is an English band who has a driving folk sound that sometimes reminds me of such punk bands as Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly. There is an epic nature to the songs on Sigh No More which makes you feel like you’re part of something bigger. The lyrics are hopeful with a sense of longing and it’s for these reasons I think this band got so big and why this album is so good. It has something people can identify with, which is a characteristic I think will always allow a band to fill out venues.

19) Jimmy Eat World – Invented

I always enjoy a Jimmy Eat World album, but over their past few releases I’ve come to know what to expect. Invented on the other hand was not what I expected at all. It’s a much more diverse album and has songs unlike anything the band has done in the past. The album starts off with a striped down acoustic number and finishes up with a couple of slow building six minute plus songs. In between they give us plenty of rocking tracks and poppy songs they’re known for, but with an obvious progression from where they’ve been. Lyrically singer Jim Atkins also took a different route by observing photos from a couple of well know photographers and writing stories based on how the photos inspired him. I love to see when bands push the boundaries of what they can do and Jimmy Eat World has done a great job if it here.

18) Jenny & Johnny – I’m Having Fun Now

Rilo Kiley front women Jenny Lewis is a busy lady. Though she’s taken a rather extend break from her aforementioned band she’s spent her time releasing another solo album and has now moved on to this new project, aptly named Jenny & Johnny with boyfriend/collaborator Jonathan Rice. The album functions as a duet album and its clear the couple have been inspired by the surf rock trend going around. I love Lewis’ voice and it would have been nice to hear more of it, but Rice holds his own on the parts he sings. This album isn’t quite as good as Lewis’ past work, but it’s clear these two are indeed “having fun” plus anything from Jenny Lewis is always a treat.

17) Frightened Rabbit – The Winter of Mixed Drinks

Frightened Rabbit are a Scottish band and musically share a lot of similarities with Mumford and Sons. But whatever Mumford and Sons do, Frightened Rabbit do it better. Their folk rock sound has an epic quality, each song building off the energy of the song before. Listening to this album makes you feel like you could conquer the world.

16) Vampire Weekend – Contra

After Vampire Weekend’s huge debut I had a bad feeling they would fall victim to the dreaded sophomore slump, but they sure proved me wrong. On Contra they took their afro-beat infused pop sound and made it even better. The songs are much more refined this time around and multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij’s production is spot on, drawing influence from his Discovery side project. In addition front man Ezra Koenig’s lyrics seem to be focused on more mature themes rather than just girls and Ivy League life as on their first release. Vampire Weekend have proved they are more than just a one trick pony and I anticipate many great releases from them for years to come.

15) Cee Lo Green – Lady Killer

I never got into Gnarls Barkley when they hit it big a couple years ago, but when I started hearing singer Cee Lo Green’s infamous hit single, “F*ck You” I was curious what the rest of the album was like. At first I wasn’t interested in buying the album so I just streamed it on NPR’s website and after that, I was hooked. The album is a total jam front to back. Green’s voice is incredible as he weaves between classic soul, funk, R&B, pop and songs that wouldn’t sound out of place in a James Bond film. Lyrically, love is the primary theme which on its own wouldn’t be interesting, but Green’s writing is both witty and truly genuine, leaving you wondering what he’ll say next.

14) Seabear – We Built a Fire

Seabear is a band I discovered this year when reading an interview with Sigur Rós front man Jónsi. The interviewer asked if there were any other Icelandic bands the world should know about and Jónsi recommended Seabear. Naturally I had to check them out. I only recently bought this album so haven’t spent much time with it, but I’ve really enjoyed it and I’m sure they are a band I’ll continue to follow. For me Seabear will fulfill the void the band Anathallo have left. They are very similar to Anathallo in there organic orchestral sound and wide use of various instruments such as horns and strings.

13) The Drums – The Drums

I love catchy pop music and The Drums self-titled debut may be the catchiest album of the year. Once again, this is another band that has jumped on the surf rock band wagon and these songs would fit in nicely in the 60s California surf scene, and there use of synths would also work well on the soundtrack of any number of 80s era John Hughes movies.

12) Bad Books – Bad Books

Bad Books are made up of the members of Manchester Orchestra and Kevin Devine. I’m a big Manchester Orchestra fan, but not as familiar with Kevin Devine. Overall the collaboration works very well as both Devine and Manchester front man Andy Hull are incredible songwriters. The songs sung by Hull sound like a more stripped down version of Manchester Orchestra songs whereas Devine’s songs are mostly acoustic. As an album it doesn’t flow very well, but it is a great collection of well-written songs. The song “Baby Shoes” may be the best song of the year.

11) Laura Marling – I Speak Because I Can

I’m not sure what it is about English girls, they seem to possess a deep sense of maturity others lack. At least that is the case with Laura Marling. On her latest album I Speak Because I Can and in interviews I’ve heard she reminds me of Carey Mulligan’s portrayal of Lynn Barber in the film, “An Education.” She speaks and writes music as if she’s a much older women trapped in the body of a twenty year old and I mean that as a complement. This album is so beautifully crafted, I’m amazed it was made by someone so young. It is mostly acoustically driven in a folk style while also managing to have the intensity and fullness of a rock album. As good as the music is, Marling’s vocals are even better. The control she has is incredible. On the first track her voice is as strong as it is fierce and then on the very next track it’s delicate and soothing. Even if she wrote terrible lyrics I could just listen to her sing, but as it turns out her lyrics are wonderfully poetic. You really can’t ask for much more on an album and this one’s nearly perfect.

10) Sufjan Stevens – All Delighted People

Technically this album is an EP, but it clocks in at nearly an hour long, which is longer than most full-length albums, so as far as I’m concerned this counts as a full length. Most of the songs on All Delighted People Stevens wrote and recorded following his BQE project, but didn’t make the cut for his full length, The Age of Adz, which was released not long after this EP. It’s only been in the past year that I’ve been getting into Stevens’ music and as soon as I heard the title track I new I’d finally become a full-fledged Sufjan Stevens fan. A number of songs are reminiscent of Stevens’ past work, but the best parts are when he unleashes some killer guitar solos or when he gets all experimental and jazzy on the final 17 minute song, “Djohariah.”

9) Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

I must preface this review by saying, I’ve never been a big fan of hip hop and although I’ve respected some of Kanye West’s past work I’ve never bought one of his albums until now. With that said, musically this album is as about as close to a masterpiece as you can get and I fully understand why it’s been a selected as album of the year many times over. Most hip hop is based on a beat, but this album goes much further, giving the songs a depth I’ve never heard in this genre. Each song is masterfully produced and arranged, allowing for new things to be heard with every listen. But what really struck me was West’s use of guest vocalist. Sure every hip hop album has a million guests but West uses them so purposefully, highlighting the artist’s talents without exploiting them or making them the main focus. It’s as though West is the conductor of his own hip hop/pop orchestra or opera for that matter. Despite the praise however, I do take issue with one aspect of this album and that’s its lyrics. The lyrics explore much of the chaotic celebrity that is Kanye West’s life. They are clever at times, but often fall into self-indulgence and are incredible filthy. I guess filthy lyrics are to be expected in hip-hop, but here they are unnecessarily over the top and almost ruin an incredible album. Had the lyrics been better this album would have easily made my top five.

8 ) Jeremy Messersmith – The Reluctant Graveyard

Where a lot of bands took cues from the Beach Boys this year, the twin cities own Jeremy Messersmith took cues instead from the early Beatles, creating one of the best purely pop albums in recent memory. Over the course of three albums Messersmith has really honed his craft as a songwriter. On The Reluctant Graveyard he uses death as his muse and there are definitely some darker numbers, like on “Organ Donor” were he documents the loss of his faith. But it’s not all doom and gloom; a number of songs are upbeat and hopeful. The song “Violet!” is a true joy and one of the best songs of 2010. Another highlight is the outstanding string arrangements like on the song “John the Determinist.” The Reluctant Graveyard brings to a close Messersmith’s supposed “pop trilogy” and even though I hope he keeps writing pop songs, I’m sure no matter what he does next, it will be a delight.

7) MGMT – Congratulations

Congratulations is easily the most underrated album of the year. Reviewers have said it isn’t as catchy and melodic as MGMT’s debut. It’s true the band abandoned songs like the hits “Kids” and “Electric Feel” in exchange for a more psychedelic sound but honestly Congratulations is a much more concise and well put together album. It seems as though they found a sound they wanted to go for and built an album around it. But anyone who thinks MGMT lost their sense melody and ability to write catchy tunes is way off track. Songs like “Brian Eno” and the title track are as catchy as ever at yet don’t sound out of place. I personally hope MGMT sticks to their current path and continue to push themselves instead of taking a step backwards.

6) Gayngs – Relayted

Gayngs is the brainchild of producer Ryan Olson who had the idea to create a throwback album reminiscent of 80s slow rock. In an interview though he claims “the only rule was, I just wanted every song to be 69 BPM, so it could be seamless.” In order to bring this project to life Olson enlisted 20 plus collaborators from throughout the Midwest, most notably, members of Bon Iver, Megafaun, Solid Gold and the Doomtree collective. The outcome is in fact a “seamless” slow jam from front to back, with both on 80s vibe and a distinctly modern sound. It’s unclear exactly how Relayted was recorded or who wrote what, but somehow Olson managed to pull it all together. There are so many performances going on and each one blends so well with the next. The vocals particularly stand out on what was one of the most innovative releases of 2010.

5) The Dead Weather – Sea of Cowards

The Dead Weather came out of the gate guns a blazing. Sea of Cowards is album number two for the band in just its second year of existence. It picks up right where their first album left off, full of bluesy hard rock. Jack White and Alison Mosshart are a match made in heaven and their combined talent along with the rest of the band is just so much fun to listen to. And it isn’t enough that this band is talented; it’s that they’re talented and they know it. Each note is full of confidence and despite the aggressive nature of the music, it comes off as rather care free, more so than any other album in 2010.

4) Sleigh Bells – Treats

What do you get when you mix hardcore, pop, extreme distortion, heavy drumbeats and a whole lot of loud? You get Sleigh Bells. Sleigh Bells are two-piece outfit made up of Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss. Miller provides the distorted guitar riffs and in your face beats while Krauss brings a vocal style ranging from sugar coated to all out manic. This band is not for everyone, but I’ve loved every bit of the ride that is Treats. Listening to it is like shooting a shotgun; it’s loud and exhilarating. I’ve never heard anything quite like this album and may have been the most original new music of 2010. I’m not sure where this band can possibly go next, but I’ll definitely be there to find out.

3) Laura Veirs – July Flame

I discovered Laura Veirs completely by accident in 2010. The same day I first heard her music I found out she had a new album and went out and bought it. As it turns out it was on of the best albums of 2010 and may be the best album by a female artist I’ve heard. Much of July Flame is built upon a folk foundation, but Veirs’ unconventional style brings the album in a variety of directions keeping you on your toes. Some songs have orchestral moments while others are reserved and simple. But even when Veirs pull back the reigns, there is still a fullness in the music, sound flows even in the empty spaces creating a warm beautiful vibe. I’m particularly found of the vocals on this album. Veirs herself sings as though she doesn’t know how to sing and yet seems to have complete control of her voice at the same time. She also makes use of some guest vocalist, most notable Jim James of My Morning Jacket. James’ falsetto adds a lovely color to the bouquet of songs he sings on. On the closing track “Make Something Good” Veirs sings a duet with another male vocalist who a adds a deep harmony that will give you chills. The album is an absolute joy to listen to and is one I would highly recommend.

2) Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz

Sufjan Stevens released his last proper album, Illinois in 2005 to much critical acclaim and fan fair. Since then fans have longed for him to release a proper follow up. During that time Stevens did release other material, but it wasn’t what fans wanted. It would be logical to assume Stevens felt a considerable amount of pressure placed upon on him by his fans to put out another Illinois however, in a recent interview with Under the Radar magazine Stevens claims all the pressure he felt was pressure he put on himself. Not long after releasing his BQE project (an orchestral piece inspired by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway) Stevens began working on what would become The Age of Adz. But instead of writing songs he started out recording and experimenting with various sounds. Also during this time he came down with a mysterious disabling illness and became obsessed with schizophrenic artist Royal Robertson. All these factors would play a significant role in the writing and recording of The Age of Adz. The first thing you notice when you put this album on is, gone are the days of Sufjan strumming his banjo and musing about the life of one of the 50 states. Instead you’ll hear the outcome of all his time spent experimenting with sounds, creating a feel reminiscent of dance and electronica. However, those sounds are just the basis upon which this album is built. Stevens takes them and creates huge arrangements incorporating a wide range of instrumentation like he’s know for, but in a way he’s not. And then there is the inspiration behind the album and here lies its genius. As mentioned before Stevens became obsessed with the artist Royal Robertson and Robertson certainly served as a muse for this album. Robertson was a man with many demons, and it would seem Stevens has or at least had some demons of his own. The Age of Adz in a sense, tells the story of his tortured soul. The amazing thing is that he’s able to do this through both the music and the lyrics. There is so much to be felt on this album, by the time you reach the end you feel as though you experienced something profound. Oh, and speaking of the end, yes the end, the album ends with an epic 25-minute song called “Impossible Soul.” As far as I can tell the song is constructed of five movements and is an incredible feat in and of itself. It serves, I believe, to tie the themes of the album altogether, bring in the end and also to bring it back to the beginning. I think it’s safe to say this album is a masterpiece. And it seems as though Stevens needed this album to shake the pressure and stress he put upon himself, sort through who he is as an artist and deal with the turmoil he felt while struggling with a strange illness. And based on what I’ve heard about his live shows of late and what he’s been saying in interviews it seems like he’s having fun and I’m glad for him, I’m glad the experience was worthwhile and that he has an incredible album to show for it, possibly his best to date.

1) Jónsi – Go

Jón Þór Birgisson aka Jónsi is the singer of the Icelandic band Sigur Rós. About a year ago Sigur Rós went on hiatus as several of the band members were having kids. During this time Jónsi decided to create a child of his own in the form of a solo album. Coincidentally the resulting album, Go fits the child analogy quite well. There is a sense of child-like wonder woven into each song and a playfulness not found in many Sigur Rós songs. Sigur Rós have soaring epic songs, but often bring the volume and tempo way down. And as much as I enjoy Sigur Rós it’s those quiet slow moments I find difficult to embrace. Jónsi on the other hand takes what he’s know for in Sigur Rós and gives it a pop sensibility and generally more upbeat sound. It’s this combination that makes Go such a great album. It is joyful and puts a smile on my face, keeping me coming back for more. I’m particularly fond of the driving percussion pared with a vast range of instrumentation; it’s clear, Jónsi surrounded himself with incredible musicians. Aside from the music, one thing that cannot go without mention is Jónsi’s beautiful voice. His falsetto is unmistakable and sounds as amazing as ever on Go especially considering he sings much of the album in English. Another reason I chose Go for album of year is because of seeing Jónsi live. The live show was phenomenal, incorporating visual arts creating an immersive experience. Again Jónsi surrounded himself with amazing talent and it made me realize how great the arrangements of these songs are. When songs hold up equally as well on an album as they do in a live setting, it confirms their quality. I don’t think I ever have truely enjoyed an album as much as I enjoy Go and going back to the child-like wonder I mentioned earlier, I don’t think there are many albums out there that have that, without being cheesy. In the spring my wife and I will be expecting our first child, a little boy. And Go is one of the first albums I want to share with him.

Top 10 Albums of 2009

This is kind of anticlimactic at this point considering we’re already well into 2010, but hear finally, is my top 10 albums of 2009.

10. Fiction Family – Fiction Family

Somewhere between fronting the band Switchfoot and releasing an ambitious solo project, Jon Foreman had time to write and record an album with Sean Watkins of Nickle Creek.  The two call themselves Fiction Family and their self-titled album sounds like a striped down version of Switchfoot with little bits of country/bluegrass influence provided by Watkins.  The two sounds meld together nicely, creating one of the more pleasant listens of the year.

9. Manners – Passion Pit

After the success of the 2008 Ep, Chunk of Change, Michael Angelakos decided to take his one off project, make it into a band and record a full length album.  Like the Ep, Manners is synthesizor heavy, full of samples and features Angelakos’ piercing falsetto.   The big difference is the addition of guitars and live drums which give it a fuller sound.  Lyrically Manners is more melancholy, though the music is as poppy and fun as ever.  If your a fan of Passion Pit you must check out Angelakos’ in studio performance at The Current.  He performs three songs from Manners using only a piano.  It’s pretty amazing.

8. Sainthood – Tegan & Sara

Sainthood picks up right where Tegan & Sara’s last album, The Con left off.  It’s full of the catchy pop hooks, but has more of an edge, showing that these ladies know how to rock with the best of them.  The guitars are fierce and the keyboards moody giving Sainthood both a modern sound and a sound hearkening back to the eighties.

7. Champagne Downtown – Halloween Alaska

Halloween Alaska are a local Twin Cities band and they seem to be content with just that.  With Champagne Downtown they’ve perfected their brand of synth driven indie rock.  The album as a whole is very chill, but on several songs the music turns on a dime, completely changing the dynamics, giving the album an unpredictability I find refreshing.

6. Monsters of Folk – Monster of Folk

When I first heard of this project I wasn’t expecting it to be very good.  I figured a band with three frontmen simply couldn’t work.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  M. Ward, Jim James, Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis combine to create a powerhouse of sound.  Their collaboration is nearly seamless and rarely sounds like a compilation featuring each of the artist’s individual songs.  The influences are pretty much what you’d expect from the four guys involved.  They each bring a little bit of what they’re know for.  I was least familiar with Jim James’ work going in, but ended up really enjoying his vocal range and song writing.

5. Horehound – The Dead Weather

When The Dead Weather came on the scene everybody kept referring to them as “Jack White’s” new band.  However, when listening to this album it becomes clear, this is very much Alison Mosshart’s band.  She does most of the singing and is credited for writing 8 of the 10 original songs.  Mosshart’s voice is rough and bold, but also distinctly feminine, which not many female vocalist pull off very well.  Despite the fact that White doesn’t front this project his presence is still very much known.  He sings on a few tracks, but the biggest surprise is that he serves as the band’s drummer.  Who knew he could play the drums so well?  Good pure rock albums are hard to find these days but Horehound hits the nail on the head.

4. Daisy – Brand New

Daisy was initially disappointing to me because it simple isn’t as good as their previous effort, The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, which I happened to chose as the best album of the decade.  But once I gave Daisy a chance I realized it holds up on it’s own and is one of 2009’s best.  Daisy is very much in the vain of The Devil and God both in the weirdness and simplicity of the album art work and in the music.  Brand New are as unpredictable as ever especially in the vocals which are laced with screaming and yelling.  The opening track, “Vices” begins with an old recording of a woman singing a hymn.  This plays for over a minute then is suddenly broken up by screeching guitars, followed by singer Jesse Lacey screaming “WE NEED VICES.”  I’m not sure how long Brand New can keep this up, but I’ll keep taking it as long as their dishing it out.

3. Beggars – Thrice

As far as I’m concerned Thrice can do no wrong.  They continue to release one solid album after another, while reinventing themselves each time.  Beggars is the follow up to the band’s incredibly diverse double album, The Alchemy Index.  This time around they decided to go with a more straight forward, upbeat rock album inspired by such genres as jazz, blues and roots music.  One of the highlights of Beggars is the strong presence of the rhythm section.  The bass grooves from start to finish while the drums are tight and loud.  Lyrically singer Dustin Kensrue talks of the dark world we live in, while alluding to a better life beyond.  Check out Thrice’s session they recently did for Daytrotter.

2. It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All a Dream! It’s Alright – mewithoutYou

With their latest release mewithoutYou you have completely shred any evidence of their post-hardcore roots.  The album is mostly acoustic guitar based, with accompaniment from horns, bells, organ, strings and many other instruments.  The resulting sound is even more eclectic than the band’s past work.  Singer Aaron Weiss’ spoken word style vocals are still present, but he also employs much more traditional singing, which suits him well.  Lyrically many of the songs are based on children’s stories similar to Aesop’s fables telling of valuable life lessons, this in combination with Weiss’ faith inspired writing, provide some very thought provoking lyrics.  It’s All Crazy is filled with charm and keeps you coming back for more.

1. Mean Everything To Nothing – Manchester Orchestra

In terms of straight up rock and roll it doesn’t get any better than Manchester Orchestra’s Mean Everything To Nothing.  Musically this album is like a category 5 hurricane, full of cutting guitar riffs, pounding drums and shredding vocals.  All these elements combined, perfectly capture Manchester Orchestra’s live sound, which is their biggest strength.  Frontman Andy Hull has never been one to shy away from vulnerability and Mean Everything To Nothing finds him as open as ever.  His lyrics are self-deprecating and honest as he strives to figure out his meaning in this life.  Manchester Orchestra took a hug leap forward with this album and these guys are only in their early twenties.  There is no doubt they’ll be on many a top 10 list in years to come.