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.

 

 

 

 

Fallen Heroes

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

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

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

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

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

My Top 25 Albums of 2016 (10-1)

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10. Conor Oberst – Ruminations

Never has an album’s cover art so accurately conveyed what an album sounds like, than Conor Oberst’s Ruminations. Oberst at a piano with a microphone, and a harmonica around his neck, somewhere out of the frame there is likely an acoustic guitar on deck; this is all you’ll hear on this album. No drums, no bass, no backing vocals, and not much by way of production. The result is a very intimate album. If you close your eyes you can almost imagine yourself sitting in the room as  Oberst brings his rumination to life. To hear an album this sparse is breath a fresh air. It’s not something you hear too often these days, and it suits Oberst’s song writing perfectly. I’ve always been a fan of Oberst’s lyrics. They have a stream of consciousness feel to them that come out as poetry. It’s hard to know exactly who or what Oberst is singing about, but it’s beautiful just the same. The song “Barbary Coast (Later)” has one of my favorite lines from this album, “Tried to lose myself in the primitive/In Yosemite like John Muir did/But his eyes were blue and mine are red and raw.”

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9. Bon Iver – 22, a million

This album stands in stark contrast to the previous album on my list. I’m sure legions of fans would be ecstatic if Justin Vernon did, like Conor Oberst and recorded a Bon Iver album by himself with just a few instruments, but that’s not where Justin Vernon is. Vernon was thrown headlong into fame and success with the last Bon Iver album and his collaborations with Kanye West. It seems he didn’t know how to handle his new place in the world and whether or not he’d even record another Bon Iver album; the main catalyst for his success. But here we are in 2016 with a new Bon Iver album, and it fits Vernon’s current state as an artist. 22, a million is distinctly a Bon Iver album. It’s what we’ve come to know and love, but it pushes those boundaries in a way that is not always easy to swallow. It’s chaotic at times, constructed more of sounds, dissonance, and noises than of guitar or piano chords. It’s misdirected, with short songs that feel unfinished or unresolved, and yet it works. The thing is, Vernon is an incredible composer, producer, and musician. He’s also smart in his execution. He surrounds himself with a talented cast of characters, and it doesn’t hurt that he has the voice of an angel. So whether he’s alone in a cabin, in a studio creating a grandiose cinematic album, or if he’s struggling with who he is as an artist and inspired by noise and chaos, you can be sure, Justin Vernon is going to create something special.

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8. Derek Minor – Reflection

Derek Minor is one of those rare rappers who is both an MC and producer. This allows for a continuity between the the lyrics, the rapping, and music that puts Minor’s voice and vision for his latest album, Reflection on full display. Thematically, Reflection is about how we’re all made in the image of God and how Christians in particular, are called to reflect God’s greatness. I found this interesting for a couple reasons. One, hip hop often delivers a message of self idolization, of being the best. Where Minor flips that whole idea on it’s head, saying, I’m great, and you’re great, because God is great. Second, Minor addresses injustices of our day, particularly those faced by the black community, injustices that go back to day one of our country. While I can’t specifically relate, I imagine the black community has felt a lack of worth and value over the years and Minor again is flipping that on it’s head. He’s saying, yeah that sucks, I feel it, but your worth isn’t in how this country sees you, or how other people see you, your worth is in God, and you are great, and you were made for greatness, even in the face of injustice, even in your weakness and in your brokenness. That’s a powerful message and it comes across in a powerful way. Going back to Minor’s production, it’s filled with heavy in-your-face blaring beats, but he knows when to pull it back at just the right times. The album ebbs and flows as Minor communicates this message he’s clearly so passionate about. And man can he rap! He’s voice is deep and booming and blazing fast when he wants to be.

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7. Citizens and Saints – A Mirror Dimly

Citizens and Saints started out their career as a worship band for a prominent mega church called Mars Hill. Then that church fell apart and left the band wondering, what’s next? A Mirror Dimly is Citizens and Saints first album since this all happened and it finds the band redefining themselves. I’ve heard singer Zach Bolen talk a lot about this album and how after their church collapsed he felt disillusioned and was filled with doubt. You can hear him working through these feelings on the album, and through his brokenness coming back to God. The bridge from the song “Relent” really gets to the heart of Bolen’s journey, “I just want to live in peace/But I’m struggling to believe/That letting go will bring me peace/Can I sit here at your feet?/’Cause this is right where I belong/Yeah, I can feel it in my soul/You say I’m right where I belong/And I know that I belong.” This theme is a thread that runs through the whole album. It’s not a worship album in the way their previous albums were, but it certainly has a very worshipful component to it. Musically, Citizens and Saints have walked a fine line between indie rock and pop. A Mirror Dimly has those elements to be sure, but they brought in a healthy dose of post-rock influence this time around. In some ways it kind of reminds of Sigur Ros with many crescendos throughout the album. Citizens and Saints certainly succeeded in redefining themselves and found hope and truth in the midst of life storms.

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6. Lecrae – Church Clothes 3

Lecrae gained considerable popularity with his 2014 album Anomaly, which hit number one on the Billboard charts. During that album cycle he appeared a number of times on The Tonight Show. Lecrae’s new found fame has given him a more prominent voice, which he’s begun to use as a platform for increased activism. At the same time his fame and activism has actually alienated a portion of his mostly Christian fan base. All of these changes in Lecrae’s life are front and center in his lyrics on Church Clothes 3. Church Clothes 3 is not a proper follow up to Anomaly, but rather it is the third part in an ongoing mixtape series. In this day and age it’s hard to know exactly what a mixtape is vs an album, but in Lecrae’s case it’s a more raw and unpolished product than what he usually puts out. It’s clear from the get-go Lecrae has some things to get off his chest, and when artist find themselves up against the wall, they often put out their best work, which is definitely the case here. On the first two tracks Lecrae gets right into the subject of racial inequality and divides in this country and get’s to the heart of how we got to the dire state we’re in now.

They say that Crip stands for Community
Revolutionary InterParty Service
Way before the genocide and the murders
A little after integration was the verdict
When bombs might go off at the Sunday service (baow!)
They protectin’ they community
Then it turn into diplomatic immunity
Then a fight against oppression was the pressin’
Now they keep on losin’ battles and they started losin’ unity
Now they beat each other blue-black
Force fed self hate ’till the truth crack
Got they own folks hidin’ on the rooftops
They ain’t finna take no more, they finna shoot back (baow!)
Now they bond like a family they all bloods
From the concrete jungle to the small hoods
Throwin’ signs up, now the crime’s up
We was meant to kill oppression now we loadin’ 9’s up
But never mind us, grind us
Factory done closed, now a lot of people jobless
Now they got the drugs comin’ in from Nicaragua
Government done turned a blind eye, or they liars
-from the song Gangland

Later in the album Lecrae address his fans basically saying, this is who I am and these are the the things I feel are important to voice, take it or leave it. His message is loud and clear, but also comes from a place of humilty, he doesn’t pretend to have it all figured out. In terms of delivery, Lecrae’s lyrics and rapping are his best yet. Don’t get me wrong Anomaly was great, but he stepped it up to another level. Production wise the music is dark and melds well with the lyrical themes, but it’ll still get you moving.  These elements combined make for Lecrae’s best release to to date, even if it is just a mixtape.

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5. Thrice – To Be Everywhere is To Be Nowhere 

If you know me at all, or if you’ve read any of my lists before, you know I’m a huge Thrice fan. Thrice released their last album, Major/Minor back in 2011 and went on hiatus in 2012. Now after four years they’re back, and I couldn’t be more excited. It was instantly clear after first putting on To Be Everywhere is To Be Nowhere that Thrice hadn’t lost their touch during the time off. It’s one of their heavier albums in a while and draws a fair amount of influence from the 90’s. There’s subtle elements of grunge, alternative, and hard rock from that era. Thrice also pulled in some of their more experimental and ambient stylings that have been mostly absent since their 2007/2008 Alchemy Index project. Vocalist Dustin Kensrue said in an interview that his lyrics are in part influence by the direction of the music and what he’s thinking about at the time. Because this ended up being a much heavier album and because of the political landscape over the past couple years, Kensrue’s lyrics went in a very politically charged direction. Honestly he comes across as angry at times and rightfully so, clearly fed up with what he has been seeing. While the album was written well before the height of the election season and it’s ultimate outcome, it’s amazing how well it paints a picture of a looming Trump presidency. On the opening track, “Hurricane” Kensrue tells of a gathering storm, “It’s gonna rain, it’s gonna rain/Till the levee breaks/A tidal wave of fear and pain carries us away/Another fight into the night/Until nothing else remains/How do we find harbor from the hurricane?” The next track “Blood on the Sand” calls out corruption, injustice, and calls for action in the face of it all, “We panic at the sight of different colored skin/And we’ve got a plan to justify each mess we’re in/But I’ve seen too much (of this fear and hate)/I’ve had enough (and I’m not afraid)/To take a stand, to make it right — this has to end.” The rest of the album is filled with similar themes and Kensrue delivers these hard hitting words with his fierce vocals that sound stronger than ever. All that to say this album isn’t without hope. The song “The Long Defeat” is inspired by an idea that Tolkien wrote a lot about. It’s a sense that evil will keep rising up and those of us on the other side must keep beating it down time and time again. But despite this endless struggle there’s a hope that exists outside of this word that one day evil will be defeated once and for all, “So keep holding on, to hope without assurance… The suffering that I see all around/It’s enough to keep me crashing down till I…/I lie wrecked and reeling from these falls/Still I believe there’s a word in the wire/And I believe there’s a way through the fire/And I believe there’s a joy that blooms beyond these walls.” Such a beautiful image and one to cling to in troubled times.

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4. Sho Baraka – The Narrative

The Narrative is a concept album of sorts. Sho Baraka and his collaborator James Portier came up with a fictional character named Lewis Poitier and the album serves as a narrative telling Poitier’s story. The narrative focuses a lot on significant events within black history. It also draws influence from prominent black figures such as Fredrick Douglas and Harriet Tubman as well as prominent Christian figures like C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton. If that isn’t enough, Baraka adds a personal touch by incorporating elements of his own story. The result is a deeply powerful and profound journey through realities of being a black man, a father, a Christian, a 30-something, an activist and what it looks like to challenge all the preconceived notions we have about those things. Each song on The Narrative is kind of like it’s own little essay, and Baraka delivers the goods with excellent rapping. The production on the album relies heavily on live instruments and feels almost like it came out of the 70’s. It’s dripping with soul, funk, jazz, and gospel influences while still feeling modern at the same time. Also, I think they did a great job of balancing the sometimes heavy themes with upbeat music. For me this is easily the best hip-hop album of the year, and is up there with one of the best I’ve heard, period. The Narrative wraps up with a song called “Piano Break, 33 A.D.” and is arguably the best track on the album. I’ll leave you with a verse from that song.

The rich man wants more
The poor man wants your’s
The oppressed want a peace of mind
The thief want a piece of mine
The doubter needs a little faith
It ain’t cliché to say “let us pray”
Who gon’ call the fouls if everyone balls out?
So open-minded that your brain falls out
G.K. said it best, nothing fails like success
And being consumed with it is much worse than death
They killin’ you with money, they just bought your silence
You can’t worship in a land full of pirates
The more booty, I promise the more scary
Success can be a drag, you can ask Tyler Perry
We sell sex then get mad that we have rapists
We promote greed then get mad that we have haters
I hated the police until a brother got robbed
I hated welfare until a brother lost his job
When I’m at work, I watch my pockets for them corporate thugs
When I’m at home, I watch my back for those crips and bloods
If my words bring conviction, let’s call in context
I’m realizin’ life is pretty complex
Thoughts of abortion taught me sanctity of life
A divorced man and woman taught me how to love my wife
A poor man sat me down and taught me about dignity
A blind man’s vision taught me all about imagery
It’ll leave you broke, that’s why it’s called the record industry
I forgot who I am, trying to get them to remember me
We adapt and evolve, the problems just revolve
Industry creates the very problems that they try to solve
I know I trace my image way back to the beginning
We done lost so much, we don’t know when we winning
I’m hated, I’m loved, I’m both, I’m a challenge
I’m clean, I’m redeemed, I’m a recovering addict
I have baggage, I am damaged, I am unequally balanced
I’m a servant, but I have a room in the palace
Uh, never told a lie

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3. Kings Kaleidoscope – Beyond Control

Kings Kaleidoscope’s story is very similar to Citizens and Saints mentioned above. Once a former worship band for the now defunct Mars Hill, Kings Kaleidoscope have come out on the other side, transcending the worship genre and making some incredible music. Chad Gardner, the master mind behind Kings Kaleidoscope is not your average frontman. He’s more of a composer, producer, and arranger. On the band’s second full length album, Beyond Control Gardner once again uses his skills to full effect, bringing in a menagerie of musicians and creating huge soaring songs inspired by rock, pop, electronic, ska, classical, hip-hop–you name it. And it all works together amazingly well. Unlike previous Kings Kaleidoscope releases Beyond Control has no hymns or other cover songs, it’s all originals this time around. Gardner who admittedly doesn’t love the lyric writing part of his job, enlisted Zach Bolen of the aforementioned Citizens and Saints to co-write many of the lyrics on this album. The lyrics are honest and powerful. There is a running theme of this life being “beyond” our control and how peace, joy, and freedom comes when giving that control over to God. Again this isn’t a worship album per se, and yet it’s deeply worshipful. I had the opportunity to see Kings Kaleidoscope live earlier this year, and first off, they are crazy good live. I’ve never seen or heard anything quite like what they do on stage. Secondly, it was definitely a worshipful experience… it was unexpected for me and yet it made sense. This album was really important to me this year. It encouraged me, brought me peace, and lifted my spirits. If you need a pick me up, look no further.

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2. Thao & The Get Down Stay Down – A Man Alive

In terms of music and production Thao & The Get Down Stay Down’s A Man Alive is my favorite album of the year. It’s an infectious, unique, upbeat brand of music unlike a lot of what is out there. One characteristic that sets it apart, even from previous Thao albums is the production of Merrill Garbus from the band Tune-Yards giving the album an almost bohemian vibe. A Man Alive is also very rhythmic with great bass parts front to back, provided by both bass guitar parts and synth bass parts. Then there’s the drumming, which is fantastic. The drums are really loud in the mix and are kind of all over the place in the best way. I really fell in love with the music on this album and front-woman Thao Nguyen has a great voice that lends it self well to what’s going on musically. But what took this album to another level for me was finding out about it’s lyrical themes. I heard some interviews and discovered the album is about Nguyen’s estranged father and her dealing with the emotions she feels toward him. After hearing that I re-listened to A Man Alive, and it came alive to me in a whole new way. Having a father leave and not be part of your life is something I could relate to, and it something that’s not always easy to talk about. And here Nguyen is opening up in a very vulnerable way, which was very moving to me. I was particularly struck by her reaching a place of forgiveness toward her father which she talks about in the first track, “Astonished Man”, “Decades to decide I need decision/I must find and capture an astonished man/Hold him ’til he knows he is forgiven.” She doesn’t let him off the hook, which she gets to later in the album, but she’s able to empathize with her father and see things from his perspective. Forgiveness and empathy are not easy,  especially when we’ve been hurt, but they are healing, and that is something we could certainly use more of in this world.

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1. Switchfoot – Where the Light Shines Through

Over the years Switchfoot have made my end of the year top 10 lists numerous times. In fact, their 2014 album Fading West was my number one album that year. They are definitely one of my favorite bands, but even more than that, they make music that speaks to my soul. It moves me in ways other music doesn’t and for me having an emotional connection to music is what it’s all about. When I first listened to Where the Light Shines Through I actually didn’t like it. Switchfoot has done that to me before, so I gave it a few more chances and it grew on me in a big way. This is Switchfoot’s 10th album and it does a great job of combining many of their sounds from over the years, while at the same time it sounds nothing like they’ve ever done. There’s the usual rock and pop with hints of 90’s inspired sounds, psychedelic guitars, and funk inspired tunes with killer bass groves throughout. Then you have Lecrae showing up on “Looking For America” adding a little hip-hop to the mix, and the title track even has an almost mainstream country vibe that somehow works surprisingly well. These guys have honed their craft, and while some bands peak and either plateau or go down hill, Switchfoot keeps getting better with each release. Frontman Jon Foreman has always sounded great vocally, but on this album he pushes his range to new heights, and there’s something about his voice where you can tell he’s invested in what he’s singing about. And that brings us to the lyrics. Where the Light Shines Through is dripping with hope. It certainly doesn’t begin with hope, but hope has the final say. Foreman is wrestling with himself and with the world on this album. In interviews he’s talked about how this album came out of one of the darkest times in his life and he thought it would end up being a dark album. However, through the darkness he found light, and hope. He saw God moving and using the hard things for good. The title track “Where the Light Shines Through” captures these sentiments well, “Cause your scars shine like dark stars/Yeah, your wounds are where the light shines through/So let’s go there, to that place where/We sing these broken prayers where the light shines through.” Whenever I listen to these songs I end up stopping whatever I’m doing and let the words sink in. It’s inspiring, uplifting, challenging, and it helps you see the dark world we live in, in a whole new light.

A Few of my Favorite Christmas Albums

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In the next week or so I’m going to start counting down my top 25 favorite albums of 2016. In the mean time I thought I’d do a quick post on some of my favorite Christmas albums. I haven’t written about Christmas music before, and I’ve found people either hate Christmas music or don’t know that good Christmas music exists. As someone who loves Christmas music, my hope is to maybe change those perceptions.

Growing up I was pretty neutral when it came to Christmas music. We had this one cassette of generic Christmas music, not even anything cool like Frank Sinatra or Judy Garland. At one point I got my mom a Neil Diamond Christmas album, but I never really got into it. I knew all the tradition Christmas hymns from singing them in Church, though as a kid they felt old and boring. As an adult I was probably like a lot of people and didn’t think much about Christmas music except to get kind of annoyed hearing it in every store during the Christmas season. Then Sufjan Stevens decided to release some Christmas music and it change everything and that is were I shall begin.

Sufjan Stevens – Songs for Christmas

This is more than just a Christmas album, it’s a box set containing over 40 songs! It encompasses everything I’ve come to love about Christmas music. It contains traditional hymns, original songs, and plenty of fun songs to get you in the Christmas spirit. It was also the first time I really started to hear and understand the significance of the Christmas hymns I grew up singing. There’s some really power stuff in there and helps ground me during the Christmas season; reminding me of what it meant for God to become man and change history forever.

Rosie Thomas – A Very Rosie Christmas

If I want to instantly get in the Christmas spirit, all I have to do is put on this album. Thomas’ original song “Why Can’t it be Christmas All Year” has become one of my all time favorite Christmas songs. This album is great too if your sick of the standard Christmas melodies. Thomas does her own take on Christmas classics such as “Silent Night” and a very different take on The Chipmunks’ “Christmas Don’t Be Late”.

Dustin Kensrue – This Good is Still Everywhere

Dustin Kensrue is the singer of my favorite band Thrice. So when he put a Christmas album I was super exited. The album is split into two parts. The first half is secular classics, and the second half is hymns. He also has two originals on the album which are both great! If you like a more folksy acoustic vibe in your Christmas music, look no further. Dustin Kensrue has also released Christmas music under the moniker The Modern Post, which is also great!

Citizens and Saints – Repeat the Sounding Joy

If dancing get’s you in the Christmas spirit then this 5 song EP is for you! After hearing these upbeat takes on Christmas hymns, you’ll never think of them the same way again.

Page CXVI – Advent to Christmas

Page CXVI are experts at reworking old hymns and they’ve done the same here for Christmas. The changes to the classics aren’t too drastic, but just different enough to give you something new. There’s also a couple originals on here and one hymn you may not be familiar with. Also, singer Latifah Philips has an amazing voice!

Heck Ya the Halls – Heck Ya the Halls, Vol. 1 & 2

Speaking of Latifah Philips, she and Aaron Strumpel started a little Christmas side project called Heck Ya the Halls. This is a little more of an up beat and fun take on Christmas music vs Page CXVI. Philips’ and Strumpel’s voices go wonderfully together. Additionally, Strumpel plays trumpet on many of the songs which adds a nice touch.

Jon Batiste – Christmas with Jon Batiste

This album came out this year and has become an instant classic for me. Jon Batiste is the band leader on The Late Show with Steven Colbert. I’ve become a big fan of his always smiling face, his energy, and his melodica infused modern jazz. Needless to say I was really excited about this album and it doesn’t disappoint. If you like jazz and/or Christmas music, this is must have! His original song “Endless Love” will no doubt go down as one of my all time favorite Christmas songs, and has a message that is much needed in 2016. Unfortunately this album is currently an Amazon exclusive so you can only find it there, but if you have Prime you can stream it for free!

I hope you’ve found something new here and if you weren’t already a Christmas music fan, then I hope you will become one! If you’d like a sampling I’ve created a Spotify playlist including some of the artists I mentioned above and some Christmas classics thrown in for good measure. Enjoy!