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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Top 5 Albums You Won’t Find on 2014’s Top Ten Lists

2014 was a pretty terrible year for music. That’s not to say there weren’t great albums; but there were few blockbusters. This is probably the norm for music now, so let’s just embrace it. Of course, that means that under-the-radar gems shine a little less brightly, since what’s on the radar isn’t commanding much attention.

This year critics seemed to love albums by The War on Drugs, Taylor Swift, Miranda Lambert, Sharon Van Etten, and, for some strange reason, Beck. Lana Del Rey even received some love. But the following artists have remained forgotten here at the end of the year. I couldn’t find a single top ten list that included any of these. You may be able to, but for the sake of this post’s title, pretend you can’t.

underrated01March on Washington, Diamond District: Mainstream rap laid an egg in 2014, both in terms of album sales and social consciousness. All the shit going down around the country surrounding protests against injustice and literally no one spoke out. It was up to former underground titans like Killer Mike and El-P and to current underground up-and-comers Diamond District to carry the torch. The power to catch your attention was in their lyrics to conjure images of corrupt politicians and angry 99-percenters. But the power to keep you hooked rested firmly in their grimy, old-school beats which conjure images of rap’s heyday as the vanguard of social unrest.

underrated02English Oceans, Drive-By Truckers: DBT are perennial underdogs, even though they’ve had a long career as a beloved southern rock band. They just can’t seem to break on through to the other side past their loyal fans to the critical mass. Critics are forever underrating their albums, and while DBT hadn’t made a great album for about five years, English Oceans fit right in next to their best. It’s criminal that people didn’t notice. Sometimes longevity is your worst enemy, because people get so used to you that they forget you haven’t had your moment yet.

underrated03Electric Ursa, Joan Shelley: The singer-songwriter album of the year belongs to Sharon Van Etten, but Electric Ursa is a close second. On Are We There, Van Etten reached new emotional depths with an expanded palette of production. On Electric Ursa, Shelley kept things simple, not by keeping things acoustic or foregoing distinctive production, but by focusing on spare storytelling. Details were scarce in her hypnotic voice, but what she did reveal was captivating.

underrated04Fantasize, Kye Kye: My feelings on mainstream Christian music are well-documented (in short: don’t like it). So when I find a band that’s even mildly interesting, I tend to overreact and hail it as the next great Christian band. Kye Kye wasn’t like that; Fantasize was a legitimately engrossing experience. Swathed in synths and drowning in longing, this album by Kye Kye’s Estonian siblings had a knack for getting under your skin and forcing you to consider the ramifications of your own unfulfilled desires.

underrated05Wild Onion, Twin Peaks: In a year that saw ostensible indie band The War on Drugs releasing the album of the year and artists like Spoon and Ryan Adams solidifying their place among rock’s older generation, it’s hard to parse through all the bands and determine what qualifies as “indie rock” or not. I think Twin Peaks qualified. They’re on an independent label, but that hardly matters anymore; it’s more important that no one was talking about Wild Onion. How an album of indie rock that drew on everything that used to define that phrase went unnoticed is beyond me.

Three Underrated Songs

“She Looks So Perfect”, 5 Seconds of Summer: I know “Fancy” and “Problem” were the official songs of the summer, but why did we have to forget about this one? I’m still obsessed with this 5SOS song. The main thing that lifts it above either of those other summer anthems? The lack of any terrible featured rap verses.

“NRG”, Duck Sauce: If you didn’t hear this song in 2014, do yourself a favor: Move your furniture. Carve about three hours out of your day. Play this on a loop. Forget about everything else.

“Hold On”, Lakes: Lakes’ Fire Ahead could have easily been in the above list of underrated albums. But “Hold On” was its best song as well as a song that deserved a wider audience. It’s an old-fashioned story about a self-destructive chorus reminiscent of a Steve Miller Band, complete with the unforgettable chorus.

Top 5 Movies You Won’t Find on 2013’s Top Ten Lists

I haven’t seen the majority of the movies that critics are praising, so take the following list with a grain of salt.  I can only tell you what I have seen and what I have loved, and so many of those movies didn’t end up receiving the attention they deserve.  2013 wasn’t as much of a banner year for movies as 2012 was, but it had its gems.  Here were the (mostly) hidden ones:

underrated1The Great Gatsby: If you didn’t love this movie, that’s fine.  I totally get it.  It was long, it was kind of blunt about its themes, and it’s admittedly not even possible for any movie to live up to the titanic quality of the classic book- nay, literature!- that was written by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  But my love for this movie is an unashamed love.  I love it when filmmakers go all out to the point of ecstasy, and I think Baz Luhrmann very nearly achieves that here.  He unabashedly runs head-on into the story, filling it with over-size characters and anachronistic music, much like his nearly-as-divisive masterpiece, Moulin Rouge!*  I thought it was the bigness of Luhrmann’s ambition, which translated perfectly to the screen, that made The Great Gatsby truly great.

underrated2Much Ado About Nothing: Speaking of bigness, this movie has none of it.  Filmed almost entirely at director Joss Whedon’s house and in black and white, Much Ado About Nothing wasn’t designed to be remembered at the end of the year.  Instead, Much Ado appears to work best as a Sunday afternoon frivolity, built to wrest you from any doldrums you might be experiencing.  Since the script is Shakespeare, there’s more depth here than an ordinary comedy, but rest assured, there are plenty of laughs to be found especially in the performances of Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof and in the winking way Whedon blocks his scenes.

underrated3No: Seems wrong to call an Oscar-nominated movie underrated, but No’s lack of attention during Top 10 List Season is disproportionate to its greatness.  Chile’s submission last year in the Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Feature category, No follows a young marketing genius (Gael García Bernal) hired to head up the campaign against the incumbent president for Chile’s first election in years.  Director Pablo Larraín and star Bernal find ingenious ways to convey the impact of modern advertising ideas on the public’s mindset about mobilization, as well as the sense of unrest that slowly became palpable.

underrated4Room 237: There’s literally nothing flashy about this movie.  It consists only of scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (along with other archival footage) voiced over by six people with different interpretations of Kubrick’s vision for the movie.  These interpretations vary from possibly plausible, such as ideas about Stanley Kubrick’s inspirations for certain themes to the wildly implausible, such as the idea that the entire movie is an apology from Kubrick for helping to fake the moon landing.  We never see the narrators, which colors their ideas as truly stemming only from the art itself.  If this sounds boring, I thought so too.  Then I found myself fascinated by both the ideas and the approach.  If you like The Shining or conspiracy theories or Stanley Kubrick or just movies in general, you should find something to appreciate about Room 237.

underrated5Star Trek into Darkness: Apparently J.J. Abrams hit a huge misstep with this one.  I was totally unaware, considering I immediately loved it and no argument has abated that love.  The movie’s critics said that Abrams and the filmmakers paid more attention to paying tribute to the series’ past and not enough attention to character development**.  I didn’t feel that way at all.  In fact, I thought that the way the characters developed in Darkness was a huge improvement on the first movie and that the filmmakers tied the characters’ development into the plot very well.  The first movie was great, and this one was even better, with a fantastic redemption story for Captain Kirk based around his self-sacrifice.

*Is this trailer not horrendous?  Watching the Great Gatsby trailer right afterwards is like the shock you get from jumping into really cold water.  My have times changed since just ten years ago.

**Which, coincidentally, was the problem I had with this season of Legend of Korra.  But you don’t care.

Top 5 Albums You Won’t Find on 2013’s Top Ten Lists

2013 is over, and the lists are out and about causing havoc among people who hate Kanye West.  Yes, Yeezus was the most-honored album of 2013 on top 10 lists, which was surprising to me.  West’s terribly-named (or perfectly, I can’t decide) album was obviously critically adored when it came out- though the majority of my non-critic friends hated it.  But I hardly expected it to be the #1 record for so many critics.  But it is, and here we are.  That was 2013.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of 2013 albums that didn’t receive a ton of love.  The following 5 albums are records that I think deserve more attention.  Just because they’re on this list doesn’t mean they will make my Best Albums list when I make one someday in 2014.  It also doesn’t mean they won’t, and it certainly doesn’t mean they don’t stack up next to the likes of Yeezus or Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City or Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories.  In fact, in my estimation, some of these records are (*gasp*) BETTER than those records- talk about blasphemy!  Anyway, in each title I linked to wherever that album is streaming.  Enjoy!

underrated1Dawn Richard, Goldenheart: Alt-R&B has slowly stolen my heart from folk music.  I probably listen to more Americana music than any other genre, but alt-R&B tends to lift me to higher highs than anything with a twang.  Dawn Richard’s debut album was this year’s channel ORANGE, except that no one noticed.  In a just world, 2013 would have been Dawn Richard’s coming-out party.  Instead, she’ll have to settle for mini-accolades from a little-read blogger in Oklahoma.  You’ll always have me, Dawn.  Favorite Song: “Break of Dawn”

underrated2Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience: JT can hardly be characterized as alt-R&B, but he certainly tried in 2013.  Unfortunately, instead of embracing his masterful ear for melody, critics rushed to call The 20/20 Experience overblown and overlong.  It wasn’t helped by the disaster that was Part 2.  But repeat listens have only confirmed what I thought the first time through: The 20/20 Experience is a masterpiece of retro R&B vibes and emotionally honest lyrics.  Favorite Song: “Mirrors”

underrated3KaiL Baxley, Heatstroke / The Wind and the War: I recommended Baxley’s double-EP debut to my friend Scott Bedgood before the end of the year, and he subsequently added it to his Top 10 Albums list.  That’s more a testament to the strength of Baxley’s music than to my musical taste, since Scott and I don’t agree on a ton when it comes to what we put on our iPods.  KaiL Baxley is more than any one genre; he’s best described as singer-songwriter, though that paints a much weaker picture of him than the reality.  Baxley tells full stories in his song, imbuing his lyrics with longing for lost passion and dreams.  He balances sensitivity with directness, giving his often dreamlike tunes a solid foundation.  Favorite Song: “HeatStroke”

underrated4Sandra McCracken, Desire Like Dynamite: Christian music predictably never appears on mainstream top 10 lists, but even Christian outlets sidestepped Sandra McCracken’s great Desire Like Dynamite.  Maybe they simply forgot, since it was released all the way back in February.  But that’s hard to excuse, since McCracken and husband Derek Webb are two of the most prolific and influential artists in the Christian music scene.  More likely, everyone just totally missed the target on this one, mistaking McCracken’s low-key vibe for a lack of substance.  In reality, this thoughtfully produced collection of folk music was one of the few creative endeavors in 2013 that consistently pointed me to my hope in God’s will for the world.  Favorite Song: “Hourglass”

underrated5W.L.A.K., W.L.A.K.: If “underrated” and “overlooked” are the key adjectives in this post, then W.L.A.K. are this post’s MVPs.  W.L.A.K. consists of Alex Faith, Christon Gray, Dre Murray, and Swoope, rappers that have perennially assisted the more well-known artists of Reach Records on several of their most potent tracks.  But on their self-titled debut, W.L.A.K. surpass their more famous counterparts in both audacity and humility.  The success of their collaboration is built fully on the power of their teamwork and on their ultimate desire to center their music on God’s glory.  Favorite Song: “Long Way Down”

*All of my friends are non-critics.  I am a non-critic.