Kevin Morby, Still Life: Remember that artist we all said was the next Bob Dylan? Oh, you’re right, we’ve had at least one of those every year since Dylan converted to Christianity. I’ve already jinxed Kevin Morby by even mentioning the Bard’s name. But Morby has the same penchant for surreal imagery in the midst of simple folk songs. Last year’s Harlem River was more of a statement with better hooks, but Still Life finds Morby trying different things with his production and song structure, risk-taking that pays off across the scope of only his second solo record since leaving the great freak-folk band Woods. Favorite song: “Parade”
Taylor Swift, 1989: I didn’t know it would come to this. In my formative years, when I was cutting my teeth on classic rock and hipster indie music in college, I couldn’t have foreseen that I would eventually become a Taylor Swift defender. But if this is my lot, so be it. This is the first Taylor album that actually sounds like she’s exorcised her relationship demons, insofar as every song was weighed down by the baggage of who she wrote it about. On 1989, there are plenty of songs about love, but the focus is far less on the stories and much more on the pop music. Also, while I had nothing against country-music Taylor, she was growing stale. After Red and now 1989, pop-music Taylor is flourishing. Favorite song that isn’t “Shake It Off” or “Out of the Woods”: “Wildest Dreams”
Trip Lee, Rise: The last great year for Christian rap was only two years ago, when Lecrae dropped Gravity, his best record yet, and Trip Lee leapt into the national scene with The Good Life. Lo and behold, 2014 has been another great year for Christian rap, and Lecrae and Trip are again at the forefront of the conversation with new albums. This time Trip Lee may have Lecrae beat though. But it’s a competition neither cares much about, as Trip won’t shy away from telling you that he only wants to boast about God [link to Scott’s interview]. That sentiment is all over his new album, and that confidence Trip has in God’s promises lends his songs an appealing surety. The Good Life felt like Trip exploring the boundaries of what he could do; Rise is Trip strolling along them, in complete control of his gifts. Favorite song: “Shweet”
Sallie Ford, Slap Back: Last year, Sallie Ford’s Untamed Beast with her band The Sound Outside was one of the best rock records of the year, like the Black Keys with an extra edge. But, for some reason, Ford broke the band up and formed a new group of all women. This is an exciting new direction; I was looking forward to a throwback to the riot grrrl bands of the ‘90s. But Slap Back falls short of all expectations you could have. It doesn’t ever fully rock out, the songs feels half-written, and Ford’s voice doesn’t have nearly the same pop as Untamed Beast. What a shame.
Under the Radar
Jason Barrows, Islands of My Soul: As introspective a record as you’ll find in the musical landscape these days, Jason Barrows has turned folk and synth music on their heads to reach a compromise between the two. Over acoustic guitars backed by subtle synth tones and percussion, Barrows mines faith for any deeper personal meaning it might have for him if he could just put it into words. He doesn’t mince words about faith’s complexities (invoking pretty harsh imagery on the haunting “License to Kill” and the propulsive “Up from the Sea”), but the music is open enough to leave room for hope. Favorite song: “Hearts on Fire”
Diamond District, March on Washington: I knew nothing about D.C. rap before listening to Diamond District’s new album. Diamond District’s March on Washington is buoyant and intelligent, full of insight on all kinds of, shall we say, capitol offenses. I still have no idea if Diamond District is representative of the city’s rap style. But if they are, I can’t wait to hear more. Favorite song: “Lost Cause”