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 2017 (25-11)

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25. Eisley – I’m Only Dreaming

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

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24. P.O.S – Chill, dummy

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

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23. HAIM – Something to Tell You

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

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22. Lecrae – All Things Work Together

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

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21. Aaron Sprinkle – Real Life

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

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20. Arcade Fire – Everything Now

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

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19. Cloud Nothings – Life Without Sound

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

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18. Run the Jewels – 3

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

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17. Comeback Kid – Outsider

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

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16. Derek Minor – Up and Away Series

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

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15. ’68 – Two Parts Viper

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

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14. Andy Mineo and Wordsplayed – Magic & Bird

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

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13. The Brilliance – All is Not Lost

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

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12. Taelor Gray – In the Way of Me

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

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11. Julien Baker – Turn Out the Lights

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