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.