Top Albums You Won’t Find on 2018’s Top Ten Lists

Every year I go through the most underrated movies and albums of the year. I couldn’t find enough movies I’ve seen that fit my criteria (on less than 3 top ten lists), so I’ll just do an albums post this year. Less work for me, less reading for you, everybody wins.

I tried to avoid albums that ended up in my Tentative Top Tens post, but I couldn’t help putting one of them here, since I was pretty surprised at the lack of recognition it’s been receiving from Christian music publications.

01

Colter Wall, Songs of the PlainsFor someone who gets compared to Johnny Cash a lot, Colter Wall sounds very little like Johnny Cash. Those comparisons are well-meant, I’m sure, but just because an artist has a spare, low sound doesn’t make Cash the best point of reference. A better point of reference is Wall’s fellow Canadian, Gordon Lightfoot. They both have a penchant for simple melodies and casual details in their story songs. Plains is transporting, the only album from 2018 that’s likely to make you forget where you’re listening to it.

02

Mark Lee Townsend, 1919: The Ballad of RexfordYou may not have heard of Townsend, but if you grew up in church in the ’90s, you have definitely heard something with his fingerprints on it. He was the guitarist for dc Talk and produced a lot of Relient K’s 2000s output. He’s also had a couple of bands that he recorded with throughout his career, but 1919 is his first solo record, a tribute to his late father’s life and faith. The album plays almost like the soundtrack to a musical, and it jumps from genre to genre pretty seamlessly. If you like Relient K’s “Deathbed,” this is basically that song spread out over an album without losing any of its power.

03

Natalie Prass, The Future and the PastThis was a really well-reviewed record when it was released in June, but it seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle here at the end of the year. Prass’s first record, a self-titled one from 2015, leaned more into folk stylings and was more content to rest in a softer register. The Future and the Past is a big step forward for Prass’s sound, adopting a funkier style and addressing the world’s ills head-on in her lyrics. I think Future is just as bold a record as Mitski’s Nobody, an album that appears to have broad consensus as one of the best albums of the year, though I found it underwhelming. For me, Future was one of the most impressive and unexpected albums of the year.

04

Rae Sremmurd, SR3MM: I get why SR3MM didn’t feature on a lot of top ten lists. It’s far from cohesive, sprawling out over three distinct albums, a solo album for each of Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi with one from the duo. There’s nothing on here with the immediacy of “Black Beatles,” and the run length (almost 2 hours!) doesn’t help. But this is Rae Sremmurd at the top of their game, crafting hook after solid hook. Even if there aren’t any hits, SR3MM is ultimately rap’s best duo doing their thing for over 90 minutes, which is hard to beat.

05

Sandra McCracken, Songs from the ValleyThere’s not really a good place to go for Christian music coverage. Christianity Today used to be the best, before they dissolved that department, but it left a void that no place has filled with anything resembling quality writing. So I guess it shouldn’t be too surprising that McCracken’s Songs from the Valley had trouble competing with the likes of Lauren Daigle or TobyMac in a segment of the industry where you don’t get any attention if you don’t get played on the radio. But very few albums weighed as heavily on my heart as this one. McCracken’s always been an ace songwriter, for herself and for others, but she’s topped herself with her most intimate songwriting yet on Valley.

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Top Movies You Won’t Find on 2017’s Top Ten Lists

Every year I highlight 3 movies that didn’t end up on any critic’s top ten list. That’s slightly misleading; I survey this Metacritic collection of lists, and if the movie doesn’t appear on 3 or more lists, it gets considered for this post. If I missed a list, it’s all over, the world, everything. For everyone. I’m sorry.

After the Storm: Hirokazu Kore-eda is a celebrated Japanese director who makes small, quiet movies. Ten years ago, his masterpiece, Still Walking, was released here in the states, and its portrayal of a family still struggling to move on after tragedy got at more truths in single scenes than most movies do in their entire running time. After the Storm does the same, even though its primary focus is not grief or regret but addiction and responsibility.

Alien: Covenant:  I’ll forgive you if you didn’t like Ridley Scott’s first Alien prequel from 2012, Prometheus, because it was purposefully ambivalent about providing answers. Covenant is not, and its themes are more contained within the story portrayed onscreen, rather than flailing about at philosophical questions the story cannot quite support. It also gives us another stellar Michael Fassbender performance and some truly chilling horror sequences that belong among the franchise’s best.

The Salesman: Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi burst onto the international scene with 2011’s A Separation, which went onto win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. That movie provided a window into a family navigating the perilous waters of Iran’s social norms as they underwent a divorce. Farhadi’s subsequent movies (2013’s The Past, 2015’s About Elly) were similarly incisive in their dissection of societal expectations in unusual circumstances, but The Salesman is probably Farhadi’s best since A Separation, taking its situation to its extreme without crossing over into self-parody.

Top Albums You Won’t Find on 2017’s Top Ten Lists

Every year I highlight 5 albums that didn’t end up on any critic’s top ten lists. That’s slightly misleading; I survey this Metacritic collection of lists, and if the album doesn’t appear on 3 or more lists, it gets considered for this post. If it’s a Christian album, I just search the usual way (read: Google) through some of the main Christian music publications. If I missed a list, it’s okay; no one’s life is over.

The Brilliance, All Is Not Lost: There have been several artists in Christian music history that have bucked (or set) the industry’s trends, but there are few today outside of hip-hop. The Brilliance have some of the kitchen-sink creativity that most recently blessed Gungor before that band veered into emergent-church territory. This makes sense, since one of The Brilliance’s primary members is David Gungor, the brother of Gungor’s Michael. But where Michael’s band has taken a decidedly meditative tack, David’s has set his rudder directly toward celebration. Beautifully synthesizing several genres, The Brilliance overcome worship music tropes, celebrating a God for everybody with music for everybody.

Caroline Spence, Spades & Roses: I understand Margo Price receiving all of 2017’s allotted attention for female off-the-beaten-path Nashvillians, because Price is brilliant. But now that 2017 is over, please turn your attention to its forgotten folk artist, Caroline Spence. Her 2015 album Somehow won me over with its plain-spoken heartbreak spiked with hard liquor. Spades & Roses is like Somehow, but with more liquor. This is best exemplified on standout track, “All the Beds I’ve Made,” in which beds and all their accoutrement become a metaphor not for love, but for the hope that this one will make you forget the rest.

David Ramirez, We’re Not Going Anywhere: I wrote about this album not 6 weeks ago, and I’m still on a high for the response it got. Ramirez himself retweeted the post and said it was “one of [his] favorite reviews for the new album,” and I could have cried. You write about an album you love and you hope someone reads it. You never expect the artist to read it and, much less, appreciate it. Ultimately, I just want this album to get attention, because it’s a devastatingly good folk album from one of Austin’s best resident musicians.

Hiss Golden Messenger, Hallelujah Anyhow: You’ll be forgiven if you’re not into Americana and haven’t heard of Hiss Golden Messenger, the Carolina-based outfit from the prolific M.C. Taylor. You’ll also be forgiven if you are into Americana and can’t remember which album of his is which. But holding this against him is like complaining that Cary Grant plays the same character in every movie- he does what he’s good at, and he’s the best at it. Taylor has a tried and true sound, a mélange of soul and backwoods blues befitting his scruffy look and family life. What makes Hallelujah Anyhow special in light of the rest of his discography is an unabashed celebration of life in the face of life’s mundanity.

Joan Shelley, Joan Shelley: Another Americana artist on this list, yes, but Shelley is quite unlike any other Americana artist we are familiar with. That’s partly because she doesn’t even consider herself an Americana musician, but mostly because she’s a singular artist. Her first few albums trafficked in Appalachian folk music, but Joan Shelley is a slight change in direction for the Kentucky artist. Her transfixing voice is still the focal point here, but she’s less reliant on her usual guitarists to give her voice its home. Instead, she travels outside her comfort zone to songs with barely any production at all, and more of a reliance on plinking keys rather than plucking strings, and her music has broadened with her world.

Top Albums You Won’t Find On 2016’s Top Ten Lists

Top Albums You Won’t Find On 2016’s Top Ten Lists

Every year I try to collect the five best albums that didn’t end up on any critics’ top ten lists. If you find one of these albums on a critic’s top ten list, please don’t sue me.

albumsunderrated01

Alicia Keys, Here: This seemed somewhat lost in the critical shuffle of 2016’s double Knowles whammy of Lemonade and A Seat at the Table, even though the only thing Here has in common with those two records is that the woman who made it is black. Here definitely takes a more conventional approach, but is just as vital and immediate. This is the best, most personal work Keys has ever released.

albumsunderrated02

LUH, Spiritual Songs for Lovers to Sing: WU LYF burned bright while it lasted, but that band’s frontman, Ellery James Roberts, started a new chapter last year with his girlfriend, Ebony Hoorn, in their new band LUH (Lost Under Heaven). Roberts still has his irresistible rasp, but this time the synths filling out his songs have heart. Someone get a teen movie for this band to soundtrack.

albumsunderrated03

Mutual Benefit, Skip a Sinking Stone: Where LUH does bombast with aplomb, Mutual Benefit owns subtlety. Carefully filled exactly to the rim with soul, Jordan Lee’s second full album as Mutual Benefit is more assured than his first. Beauty doesn’t have to be delicate, but Skip’s appeal is rooted in Lee’s precise quietude.

albumsunderrated04

Tedashii, This Time Around EP: T-Dot has been around long enough for us to know what to expect from him. But This Time Around finds a new home for Tedashii with some of the most fun music he’s released yet. “Jumped Out the Whip” and “I’m Good” are not only bangers, but they’re also Tedashii at his most relaxed, which is a mode I hope he uses more of on his next full-length.

albumsunderrated05

Terrace Martin, Velvet Portraits: I don’t know a lot about jazz, but I know I really like this neo-jazz trend that Kendrick Lamar launched into the mainstream with To Pimp a Butterfly. One of Lamar’s collaborators on that record, Terrace Martin, released a beautiful collection of jazz funk this year that was mostly passed over. Pop music critics probably didn’t really know what to do with this mix of instrumentals and soul-inflected grooves, but I do: play it over and over again.

Top Movies You Won’t Find on 2016’s Top Ten Lists

Top Movies You Won’t Find on 2016’s Top Ten Lists

Every year I try to collect the three best movies that didn’t end up on any critics’ top ten lists. If you find one of these movies on a critic’s top ten list, please sue me.

moviesunderrated01

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: A lot of critics aren’t drawn to or moved by blockbusters, because big-budget studio movies don’t tend to exhibit a lot of nuance or originality, so that may explain Fantastic Beasts‘ absence on critics’ top ten lists. But even though Fantastic Beasts is a spinoff of the 8-movie, blockbuster Harry Potter series, Beasts managed to find both nuance and originality in a 1920s setting and a story that deals with being an outsider. The characters are made rich by winsome performances against a backdrop of truly magical visuals, which is hopefully a formula the filmmakers follow in the sequels.

moviesunderrated02

Microbe & Gasoline: This little-seen gem is the most normal movie Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Be Kind Rewind) has ever made. It’s a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story about two young friends who road trip across France in a house-car, which is a car that looks like a house- you know, to fool the cops. Semi-autobiographical coming-of-age stories can sometimes be unbearable, but Microbe & Gasoline has real insight into why we pick our friends when we’re kids and into the counterintuitive desire not to fit in.

moviesunderrated03

Under the Sun: Much more should be made of this documentary about North Korea, made up of footage from the propaganda film the filmmakers were hired to make and from what happened between takes when they left the cameras rolling. We see how the scenes meant to praise the country and its ruler are meticulously staged to the point that in one scene the children involved end up crying under the pressure. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the authoritarian nation, one we have to assume won’t happen again, though if the North Korean government was inept enough for this to happen once…

Top 5 Albums You Won’t Find on 2015’s Top 10 Lists

Every year there are the consensus albums that end up on all the end-of-year lists, and then there are the albums that I loved that don’t get any love. This year, the critics seem to agree on Kendrick Lamar, Courtney Barnett, and Sufjan Stevens, all of which ended up on my own tentative top ten list. Other artists on that list receiving a little end-of-year attention were Alabama Shakes, Phil Cook, and Samantha Crain.

This is a list of the albums that got zero mentions in top ten lists, mine or otherwise. In past years I’ve included albums that got less than three, but that seems disingenuous, and, as a public figure, I must maintain the trust of my many fans. That means Jimmy Needham, Ben Rector, Gungor, and The Tallest Man on Earth aren’t on here, even though I can’t find a single list with them on it except my own. It also seems like a waste to include albums I’ve already written about, so no Amy Speace, Belle and Sebastian, David Ramirez, Dawes, KaiL Baxley, Lucero, Nicole Dollanganger, Sam Outlaw, The Weather Station, The White Buffalo, or Worriers. Basically this is just an excuse to catch up on writing about the artists I missed over the past year.

underratedmusic01

Brandi Carlile, The Firewatcher’s Daughter: Carlile recorded every song on her fifth studio album in one take, and the roughriding approach is apparent in the DNA of every song. She’s released good albums before, but she had the problem that a lot of singer-songwriters have, of having a sound that was too staid to do justice to her roughly hewn lyrics. The Firewatcher’s Daughter fixes this problem in one fell swoop with its first track, the rollicking “Wherever Is Your Heart”, which sets the tone for the barn-burning Americana to follow.

underratedmusic02

Caroline Spence, SomehowWhere Carlile’s record shows how strong folk music can be when it’s set loose, Caroline Spence’s Somehow is an example of how great Americana can be when it stays home. There aren’t any risks and there are few flourishes. Spence displays an earnestness that, in a lesser songwriter’s hands, might have been cloying, but with strong metaphors and clever turns of phrase, her record is instead comfortably satisfying.

underratedmusic03

Curren$y, Canal Street ConfidentialCurren$y’s latest studio album just came out this month, so the critics can have a little slack for not including him in their roundups. But since I’ve never seen his albums or mixtapes on year-end lists in the past, it’s probably safe to say that the stoner rapper’s newest would have gone similarly unheralded. It’s his most polished effort so far and his album with the most famous featured artists yet (Future, Wiz Khalifa, Weezy), but it still retains his blunt sensibility, which is a more defined sensibility than any of those featured artists have had of late, by the way.

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JD McPherson, Let the Good Times Roll: Rock doesn’t get a lot of mainstream critical attention anymore, and that’s fine. But you can still find great rock music if you know where to look, and JD McPherson’s Let the Good Times Roll is a good place to start. He scratches a rockabilly itch that nothing in the wider cultural conversation is really getting near.

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Lord Huron, Strange TrailsOn their 2012 debut, Lonesome Dreams, Lord Huron was a little too in love with the same propulsive dream-folk rhythm that permeated every song. It was their calling card on that album, and they revisit it on Strange Trails, but with more variations, allowing for syncopation and even some swing to enter their musical vocabulary. The result is a compilation perfect both for the road and the campfire.

Underrated Songs

Carly Rae Jepsen, “All That”
Chromatics, “Just Like You”
Janelle Monae & Jidenna, “Yoga”

These were three of the best pop songs of the year and yet have received little to no end-of-year attention.

Top 3 Movies You Won’t Find on 2014’s Top Ten Lists

2014 was a strange year for movies. While there were awesome blockbusters and fascinating indies, the box office was down 5% from last year. A foreign country  hijacked one of our premier studios, airing its dirty laundry and forcing it to pull its movie from theaters and then release it anyway in an unconventional way, prompting questions about how movies will be released in the future.

I don’t know what the movie industry is going to look like later on, but it’ll do for now. I didn’t get to the movies as often as I would’ve liked in 2014, so there’s only three movies for this list.

underrated01Ernest & CelestineWe’re all happy and content with our Pixar movies and our How to Train Your Dragons and our Disney princesses here in America, but every now and then its nice to see how the rest of the world does things. Ernest & Celestine is a French cartoon about an unlikely friendship between a mouse and a bear. Not only is the hand-drawn animation a refreshing difference from the status quo here in American animation, Ernest & Celestine includes far more direct political implications than most of our animated movies would dare to even hint at. It’s all centered around the titular characters’ unconventional and heartwarming relationship.

underrated02Neighbors: Seth Rogen & Co’s man-child shtick has been getting tiresome. Every comedy seems to want their version of the boy who won’t grow up, telling the same old dick jokes and smoking the same old pot. Neighbors uses this as an advantage, centering its plot and its comedy around a couple of parents (Rogen and Rose Byrne) who feel themselves growing up and aren’t sure how to cope with it. The realization that they’re getting old is exacerbated by a college fraternity moving into the house next door. Their attempts to maintain their hip status lead to the kind of trouble that makes for great comedy and great drama alike.

underrated03X-Men: Days of Future Past: It’s not that people hated Days of Future Past, but critics had a hard time taking it seriously. But why do we have to take it seriously? Were we taking Guardians of the Galaxy seriously? If there’s one thing Days of Future Past did a great job of, it was the spectacle, from that hilarious Quicksilver scene to that brilliant climactic showdown at the end. In fact, there was a reason to take Days seriously- in its final minutes, the filmmakers handed the plot’s reins not to an action scene but to a scene in which a woman decided the fate of the world.

Three Underrated Performers

Macon Blair, Blue RuinActors from little-seen indies don’t usually receive awards attention. Blair won’t be any different; the only thing he’s nominated for so far is a Gotham Independent Award for “Breakthrough” Actor. But his naive desperation that carries Blue Ruin as a thriller and a drama place him among the year’s best and not just its most underrated.

Zac Efron, NeighborsGuys who starred in High School Musical don’t receive awards attention either, and let’s not even start on awards-givers ignoring comedies in general. With Neighbors, Efron proved he could hang with the toughest comedy minds, delivering some of the movie’s best moments as a fraternity president unwilling to face life after graduation. Efron’s reputation has changed after Neighbors in ways that make it exciting to picture his future in the movies.

Jennifer Lawrence, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 and X-Men: Days of Future PastLawrence is hardly underrated in general. She’s already won an Oscar and been nominated for two more. But these two performances will go overlooked, because they’re blockbusters and not awards movies, because they’re ensemble movies, because they’re movies based on comic books and children’s books. Make no mistake though: the quality of these movies depends almost solely on the ferocity of Lawrence’s performances. She’s a big reason why X-Men and The Hunger Games are among the best blockbuster franchises.