Music Bummys 2013: Best Albums of 2012

[It’s okay to mourn- 2012 was a long time ago, and we’re well into 2013, which is not the year that 2012 was.  Indeed, 2012 was the best year for pop culture in a long time- at least since 2009.  There wasn’t a runaway favorite in the music scene like Adele’s 21 in 2011,  but that’s because there were so many great offerings from 2012.  There wasn’t a clear favorite in Hollywood like…well, there wasn’t a clear favorite in 2011 either, was there?  But that was for lack of quality, whereas in 2012 we were inundated with quality movies the entire year.  Ah, the good old days.  Excuse me while I take out my teeth and reach for my prune juice.

2012 was a banner year, and what better time to look back at it than 9 months later?  No, seriously.  You don’t think so?  That’s okay.  Honestly, if I could, I’d do these Bummys lists right at the beginning of the year, but when January rolls around, I still have so many movies to watch and so much music to listen to, I can’t make a year-end list.  So I have to settle for what in our culture of immediacy amounts to a retrospective, akin to those montages at the Oscars for the celebrities that passed away that year.  We look back in fondness on the historic year of 2012; may the entire cast of Cloud Atlas rest in peace.]

Interestingly, I’ve already done a Top 10 Albums of 2012 list, at the end of the year, in conjunction with my friend’s blog.  Also interesting: four albums that made an appearance on that list don’t show up on this one.  I guess my perspective changed a little bit.  Two folk albums, the Vespers’ The Fourth Wall and Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Leaving Eden, were replaced by a rap album and a Christian electronic album, something I definitely didn’t expect.  Trip Lee fell to the “Fifteen More” category.  And Alabama Shakes, my beloved Alabama Shakes, were replaced by a brother duo from Texas that no one’s heard of.  I’m not sure what I was thinking, but I’m sure of one thing: this is the right list.

Top Albums of 2012

kendricklamar10. Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d city: A lot of albums profess to be concept albums, LPs with a plot and characters, but the majority end up having the vague outline of a story rather than the concrete and significant details that add weight to a narrative (see: American Idiot and The Black Parade, both great albums, but not great concept albums).  Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city might be the most fully fleshed-out concept album I’ve ever heard.  It helps that Lamar’s focus on his concept album is more specific than most; good kid is a chronicle of one evening in Lamar’s life out on the streets with his friends while they cruise around in his parents’ van.  From this one evening comes a treasure trove of insight about his lack of pleasure in his hedonistic but monotonous lifestyle (“Swimming Pools (Drank)”), his neverending search for escape (“B*tch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”), and his dependence on his rapping for fulfillment (“Poetic Justice”).  But the overall takeaways from good kid are Lamar’s incredible self-awareness as he quotes Scripture and prayers in the midst of his own sinfulness, as well as the cyclical culture of the streets, mirrored in the way the record ends right where it began, implying that the sin and tragedy Kendrick places before us is only going to keep going.

benjamindunn9. Benjamin Dunn & the Animal Orchestra, Fable: If you had given up on Christian music before 2012 (and who could blame you, really…), you picked a terrible time to do it.  Independent Christian music is on the rise, with the help of Derek Webb’s NoiseTrade website, which coincidentally just released an offer for Benjamin Dunn’s discography for free (the offer’s over, btw- it was only a week; sorry, you snooze, you lose).  Benjamin Dunn synthesizes rock and electronic music into a wildly satisfying blend of happiness.  The music would induce rapture on its own, but Dunn has paired it with a libretto that draws inspiration from C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books both in its characters and in its themes.  Characters like Eustace and Caspian show up to demonstrate our dependence on grace and God’s sovereignty, and “When We Were Young”, the best song on the album (and one of the best of the year), is an ecstatic ode to the glories of being young, something Lewis would have appreciated.  Put Fable on when the news in the world is getting you down, and you’ll be instantly reminded why you were originally captivated by God’s grace.

theolivetree8. The Olive Tree, Our Desert Ways: It’s no secret I’m a fan of folk music, but Our Desert Ways is really the only folk album on this list (with the possible exception of Andrew Peterson, sure, maybe, whatever), and it’s about as simple as folk music comes.  It’s basically two brothers, their acoustic guitars, and the occasional percussion.  And that’s all you need for great music when you’re a great songwriter; Our Desert Ways makes the case that The Olive Tree has two great songwriters on their hands.  My wife compared them to Caedmon’s Call, which she meant in a derogatory manner (she hates Caedmon’s Call, for some demonic reason…), though I’ll emphatically steal her comparison and use it for good.  Caedmon’s Call has always had folk leanings, but their consistent quality is Gospel-centered lyrics buoyed by stable melodies, the perfect description for The Olive Tree as well.  This can give CC and The Olive Tree a hokey feel sometimes, but Our Desert Ways’s commitment to storytelling and the Gospel have made this into a record that will endure.

fionaapple7. Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do: I can’t stand the stylings of metal or hardcore, and noise-rock tends to make me shudder, but I can’t get enough of the dissonance and strange chord changes of Fiona Apple.  Even the most listenable songs on The Idler Wheel… (“Every Single Night”, “Anything We Want”) are minor in key and unapologetically complicated in their construction.  They match their maker without a doubt; the most memorable lyric on the album, “nothin’ wrong when a song ends in the minor key” applies to both Apple’s music and, ostensibly, her life’s situations.  She never sounds comfortable, but if she’s comfortable with anything, it’s the fact that she’s a screwed-up person and her life is equally as screwed up.  On “Jonathan”, she begs to be kissed while her mind is racing.  On “Left Alone”, she talks about her tears calcifying in her stomach, so that she can’t cry when she’s sad.  And on the standout “Werewolf”, she claims complicity in the dissolution of a relationship, comparing her significant other to a shark and her faults to “waving around a bleeding open wound”.  I hope this album provided her some catharsis, because the songs portray a person with complex issues that needed to be dealt with- in other words, a human being.

brucespringsteen6. Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball: I wonder if Bruce Springsteen is the kind of artist I’m supposed to grow out of: earnest dad rock made by a man whose biggest hits were before I was born.  There’s no nostalgia holding me to Bruce, since I didn’t listen to him until college, and he’s hardly a defining artist of my generation.  Regardless, I can’t let go; he keeps putting out albums, and I keep loving them.  Wrecking Ball continues his trend of politically leaning albums mixing rock with folk begun in the 2000s with The Rising and continued with Magic and Working on a Dream.  We all know where Springsteen falls on the political spectrum (if you don’t, search Google for “Bruce Springsteen” and “campaign song”), but what often gets lost is the universality of Bruce’s lyrics and music.  If you remove Bruce the person from the songs, it’s hard to argue with words like “Let a man work, is that so wrong?” or “The road of good intentions has gone as dry as a bone”.  On an album where Bruce Springsteen swerves into hip-hop for the first time, I resist the idea that I could ever grow out of Bruce Springteen.  Instead, I’m seeing more and more than he’s one of the best artists of any time.

davidcrowderband5. David Crowder*Band, Give Us Rest; or, A Requiem Mass in C (The Happiest of All Keys): You know, David Crowder*Band had nothing left to prove.  They had already made at least three great records without releasing a bad one, on top of putting together a rollicking live show that mixed their standards with others’ worship songs and bluegrass hymns.  When they announced they’d be releasing their last album and embarking on their final tour, their legacy was intact.  They were the premier Christian pioneers of creative music-making, bringing innovation and excitement to a genre that was (and is) severely lacking in both.  Give Us Rest didn’t have to be their best album ever, and on its release, a lot of critics dismissed it as too long, too indulgent, too boring.  And they’re entitled to their opinions; they’re just wrong.  Give Us Rest is a joyous eruption of desperate praise.  It’s 100 minutes long, which is daunting at first, but there’s not a down spot on the album; even the instrumentals glow with vitality.  I’m not sure that, if I step back and think on it, I would say Give Us Rest is David Crowder*Band’s best album.  But while I listen to it, I certainly feel like it is.

japandroids4. Japandroids, Celebration Rock: There was a time in the distant, shrouded past when rock and roll was pure and unadulterated, forged in the fires of youthful passion and glorious naïveté, free from corporate greed and machinated studio contracts.  And even though none of that is true, Japandroids will make you believe it is.  Celebration Rock is exactly that: a celebration of the excesses of the music that is rock.  The titles of the songs (“Fire’s Highway”, “Adrenaline Nightshift”, “Continuous Thunder”) gesture toward the great expectations Japandroids has for their music’s effectiveness.  Japandroids is just two people, but they play with more force than most groups of any number, to the point where they’re in your heart before you even realize that everyone likes them so you’re not supposed to.

frankocean3. Frank Ocean, channel ORANGE: One of my friends has called Frank Ocean the “black Bon Iver”, which he meant as an insult, but it’s actually a pretty apt comparison.  Both artists make supremely melancholy music that transcends whatever genre they get pigeonholed in; both artists have seen success in the mainstream but truly belong somewhere outside of the radio box;  and both have unlikely partnerships with Kanye West that helped stretch his music beyond his soul-sampling comfort zone.  But with all due respect to Bon Iver, Frank Ocean is the reigning king of disillusionment.  The characters in his songs either live on the fringes of the world or they live the high life; there’s not really a middle ground for him (unless you count the average Joe in “Forrest Gump”, but he’s obsessed with the titular athlete, so he’ll end up on the fringes somehow, some way).  But all the perspectives he adopts share a sense of melancholy that can’t be duplicated.  The result is a boom in alt-R&B acts that are striving (some more successfully than others) to do just that; but channel ORANGE is that rare album that stands and will stand as a marker of its time, the first of its kind.

lecrae2. Lecrae, Gravity: A couple weeks ago, the rapper Evangel released a track online called “Hey Mr. Gravity” directed at Lecrae and the new direction he’s gone with his music.  Evangel took it down soon after, acknowledging that releasing a song that came off as a diss track probably wasn’t the best way to call out a brother.  It’s a shame, because Evangel’s song provided the perfect sounding board with which to test Lecrae’s methodology, so that we don’t just take Gravity  at face value.  I understand where Evangel was coming from- Lecrae is walking a fine line as he tries to rap from the perspective of those without Jesus, occasionally veering towards vilifying the church, God’s bride, and excusing sin.  But it’s a line on which Lecrae ultimately comes down on the right side, pointing to Jesus’s power and not man’s as the solution to our ills.  In fact, the more I listen to Gravity, the more I think Evangel must have forgotten to listen to it himself.  This is Lecrae’s best record yet, and his first to sound like he doesn’t care if it has a hit or not.  He moves away from the club-banger style that dominated Rehab and Overdose and branches out, embracing trap (“Lord Have Mercy”), Drake-style rap&B (“Confe$$ions”), and Afro-rap (“Violence”).  But the majority of the disc features the southern rap style that is dominating Reach Records’ recent releases, and you hear it here at its rollicking best.  Lecrae receives plenty of help from Trip Lee, Sho Baraka, Tedashii, Andy Mineo, and the rest of the usuals (along with a surprise appearance from Big K.R.I.T. on standout “Mayday”), but by the end of the record it’s clear that none of them are the star.  Finishing the album with “Tell the World” and “Lucky Ones”, songs that drive home our need to tell others the Gospel, Lecrae places Gravity firmly in Christ’s hands where it belongs.

andrewpeterson1. Andrew Peterson, Light for the Lost Boy: My wonderful wife bought us tickets to Andrew Peterson’s show in Linden, TX this weekend for my birthday.  When I tell people this, it’s with a certain amount of childish excitement that must come across on my face or in my voice or something, because they ask in a frightened way, “Who is he?”  I tell them he’s a Christian folk artist, and we all go on our merry way, but I fear I’m underselling him.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with Christian folk, and it’s a designation that certainly would have been true for his first seven or eight albums (give or take his classic Christmas album); but frankly, Light for the Lost Boy fails to qualify as folk.  From his last album (the excellent Counting Stars) to Light, Andrew Peterson significantly expanded his palette.  Much like 2011’s best album, Gungor’s Ghosts upon the Earth, Light for the Lost Boys doesn’t abandon what made its predecessor great; after all, there are still Americana stylings hanging around.  But there’s so much more to enjoy, from the almost grunge guitars mixing with U2 reverb on “The Cornerstone” to the indie-pop of “The Voice of Jesus” and “Shine Your Light on Me” and on to the swirling, 10-minute epic “Don’t You Want to Think Someone”.  Peterson’s sound is fuller on this album, more ambitious and more realized at the same time.  This jump in musicality befits a similar jump in themes.  Counting Stars was simpler, focused on family and devoted love.  Light for the Lost Boy focuses on those as well, but adds the passage of time, purpose, the grandeur of God in nature, and theological quandaries to the mix.  It’s both the biggest album on this list and the smallest, and it’s time you listened to it.

Fifteen More (in alphabetic order)
Alabama Shakes: Boys & Girls
Amadou & Mariam: Folila
Anaïs Mitchell: Young Man in America
Beautiful Eulogy: Satellite Kite
Carolina Chocolate Drops: Leaving Eden
Christopher Paul Stelling: Songs of Praise and Scorn
Flatfoot 56: Toil
Grizzly Bear: Shields
Jack White: Blunderbuss
John Fullbright: From the Ground Up
Matt Mays: Coyote
Passion Pit: Gossamer
Propaganda: Excellent
Trip Lee: The Good Life
The Vespers: The Fourth Wall

Top Albums of 2013 (So Far, in alphabetic order)

Jason Isbell, Southeastern: Probably my favorite album of the year (so far).  Isbell has released other good records since leaving Drive-By Truckers, but Southeastern is by far his most personal and forceful as he chronicles his recovery from alcoholism.

Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience: Corporate it may be, but there’s no denying that JT has once again made an album of songs that change our ideas of what pop should sound like today.  This time he does so using funk and R&B sounds of the past.

KaiL Baxley, HeatStroke / The Wind and the War: This is the record that never fell on your radar this year.  And if it weren’t for me, this diverse collection of funk and folk would have stayed off your grid.  You’re welcome.

Laura Marling, Once I Was an Eagle: I’ve heard a lot of comparisons to past artists for Laura Marling (much like Jake Bugg), but they’re useless.  Marling is a singular voice in a conformist world.  Her spare arrangements and vocals beg for creative descriptions and not lazy comparisons.

Patty Griffin, American Kid: Time after time, Patty Griffin turns out great alternative country albums.  Her newest is a tribute to her late father, and the intimacy is apparent in both the personal lyrics and the immediate music.

Most Anticipated Albums of 2013 (The Rest of the Year, in alphabetic order)

Drake, Nothing Was the Same: There aren’t many artists for whom I would willingly dive into depression and self-degradingly hedonistic behavior in order to hopefully better myself, but Drizzy is one of them.

Gungor, I Am Mountain: The title could either be awesome or laughable, I haven’t decided yet.  But I know on which side of that line the actual music will fall.  Their last album, Ghosts upon the Earth was my favorite album of 2011.  Some dropoff would be expected, but Gungor has always been a unique and surprising band, so all bets are off.

Janelle Monáe, The Electric Lady: Her The ArchAndroid was one of the best albums of 2010, though it failed to catch on with the mainstream.  I’m a little disconcerted that she’s trying to appeal more to that demographic with this album, but early singles “Dance Apocalyptic” and “Q.U.E.E.N.” don’t sound like anything on the radio, so good riddance to that idea!

Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience Part 2: It’s hard to imagine this living up to the success of Part 1, and “Take Back the Night” isn’t necessarily a smash, but at this point, I’m not betting against JT.

M.I.A., Matangi: “Bad Girls” and “Come Walk with Me” are superb.  Here’s to hoping for a massive improvement on her terrible 2010 LP /\/\ /\ Y /\.

Previous Top Albums

2011

Gungor: Ghosts upon the Earth
Adele: 21
Over the Rhine: The Long Surrender
Bon Iver: Bon Iver
The War on Drugs: Slave Ambient
Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues
Drake: Take Care
Raphael Saadiq: Stone Rollin’
Beyoncé: 4
Matt Papa: This Changes Everything

2010

Titus Andronicus: The Monitor
Andrew Peterson: Counting Stars
Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Gungor: Beautiful Things
Arcade Fire: The Suburbs
Surfer Blood: Astro Coast
The Tallest Man on Earth: The Wild Hunt
Jars of Clay: The Shelter
Ben Rector: Into the Morning
Local Natives: Gorilla Manor

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Top 10 Albums of 2012 (Sort of)

Full disclaimer: This Top 10 will without a doubt change between now and next September when I make my official Music Bummys Best Music of 2012 list.  I am writing this list now only as a favor to my good friend Scott Bedgood who wanted some pointers on how to make a list of this ilk, since apparently they don’t teach a class on top 10 lists in journalism school (the nerve!).  I’ll consume countless numbers of 2012 albums over the next 9 months and release a more accurate top 10 list of my favorite albums from this great year in music.  I just want to make sure all you Bummys completists out there are satisfied.  Don’t worry your pretty little heads, I’m not selling my esteemed opinion short by writing this list too early.  This is strictly for fun.

In fact, this will probably not be a very serious list.  Oh, the albums themselves are serious- I loved every album on this list, and will most likely continue to love them and listen to them voraciously in my car on my morning commute.  But as Scott released his list this morning (and, as I understand it, has already written the rest of his list) and I’m only writing mine now, I have to play catchup, and, frankly, I don’t have time to write intricately on each and every album’s strengths and weaknesses.  So, instead, I’ll have a little fun with it.  Scott’s list is the Frontier City version of a Top 10 of 2012 list- mine is the Six Flags over Texas.  Prepare yourself.

leavingeden10.Leaving Eden, Carolina Chocolate Drops: Listen, I’m aware that this is 2012 and a bluegrass record should hardly be on a top 10 list.  But consider this my requisite EDM pick for the year; I just replaced it with a better genre that actually sounds like music.  Beyond the fact that CCD has a name that (IS AWESOME) sounds like a delicious southern candy, CCD is downright committed to their sound.  They truly sound of another time, a time when Africans were slaves or maybe indentured servants, which requires certain panache to pull off without being offensive.  They sell it though; I love their mission to show the impact of African-American music on American music as a whole.  They play their instruments extraordinarily well, from the fife to the banjo, and lead female singer Rhiannon Giddens has a voice that sounds equally at home on the brassy barnburner “Country Girl” and on the lilting lullaby “Pretty Bird.”  Best Song: “Pretty Bird”

thefourthwall9. The Fourth Wall, The Vespers: You’ve never heard of this band, but that’s okay, because you hadn’t heard of Carolina Chocolate Drops, and they were awesome when you listened to their entire album immediately after reading my blurb above, weren’t they?  Yeah, so you can bet The Vespers is one top 10 spot more awesome, since they’re one top 10 spot above them on this list.  The Vespers is a brother-sister quartet that is entirely younger than me- the girls are 19 and 21, the boys are 20 and 22.  I’m 23.  But none of them are about to graduate with a Masters in Speech-Language Pathology, I can guarantee you that.  They can keep their incredible, youthful talent and word-of-mouth fanbase.  I’ll take my (future) paycheck and nagging sense that I should’ve been a movie critic anyday.  But really, The Vespers are sensationally talented.  And the folk gems they created on their April album The Fourth Wall display a consistently creative bent that doesn’t rely on the sometimes boring tropes of folk.  The Fourth Wall is an album from a group without limits, which is rare in folk music.  Best Song: “Instrument for You”

fionaapple8. The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do, Fiona Apple: Okay, so Fiona Apple is weeeird.  And I tend to go for music that leans more towards the melodic than the freaky (Animal Collective notwithstanding), but Apple has made it so I don’t have to choose.  She marries the wacky and the gorgeous so well on her June album that it defies explanation, much like the album’s ridiculously long name.  But even that long title adds to the album’s charm.  The Idler Wheel, etc. is decidedly unsettling but at the same time addictive and empowering.  Apple sings in disturbing imagery, but she still captures not the feeling of heartache but that potent feeling after heartache of being really pissed off at your ex-significant other.  And not only that feeling, but the feeling of trying to find meaning once being angry loses its appeal.  So while her album is a dead-on, indie hit, Apple herself is more like this. If she were an NBA highlight reel.  Best Song: “Every Single Night”

frankocean7.channel ORANGE, Frank Ocean: With the July release of channel ORANGE, Frank Ocean became one of the best R&B artists with a name that I wish was his real name.  He joins the ranks of Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, and D’Angelo.*  I, for one, prefer to live in a world where those are all their real names, and where the stars aligned in such a way that parents birthed children and were prescient enough to give them stage names years ahead of their pending fame.  The fact that Frank Ocean’s real name is Christopher Breaux is a real buzzkill when listening to his album, seeing as how he doesn’t fit the frat style that a last name of Breaux would befit (just imagine what a musician named Christopher Bro would be like- something like this, I’d wager).  That being said, in all seriousness, when I listen to Frank Ocean, I almost forget about everything else surrounding Frank Ocean (his stage name, his association with the uber-annoying and –offensive Odd Future, his recent admittance that he’s gay/bisexual), because Ocean effortlessly croons at us one masterpiece after another.  It took me a while to warm up to this album, but eventually I learned to stop worrying and love it.  You’ll hear this over and over again at the end of 2012, but it needs to be said by as many people as possible: Frank Ocean is a genius at making music that is as easy to listen to as it is rewarding upon multiple listens.  Don’t let the hype turn you away; give him a chance.  Best Song: “Bad Religion”

boysandgirls6. Boys & Girls, Alabama Shakes: Brittany Howard, the lead singer of the little blues-rock band from Alabama, seems poised to do more for music than any other artist out there.  Adele’s 21 was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of album, but I worry that Adele will get swallowed by the pop music machine.  Howard’s on the outside of it, thank goodness, and if she and her band (the Big Brother & the Holding Company to her Janis Joplin) don’t get caught up in their own hype, they’ll have everything going for them.  They’ve got one hell of a singer, they’re young and not at their peak yet, and they already write songs that are both exciting and poignant (listen to the one about an unrequited love passing away, “On Your Way,” and ask yourself how many 23-year-olds can write something that mature).  So Frank Ocean will deservedly win the Best New Artist Grammy, but since the only people who believe in the Grammys anymore are nobody anywhere, I proclaim that Alabama Shakes is the Best New Artist.  I expect a phone call anytime now from Brittany thanking me for this honor.  Anytime now.  Annnytime.  Yep.  Anytime.  Best Song: “You Ain’t Alone”

davidcrowderband5. Give Us Rest or (A Requiem Mass in C [The Happiest of All Keys]), David Crowder Band: I’m not one for hyperbole, but- who am I kidding, I love hyperbole!  I live for hyperbole.  I’ll hyperb all freaking day.  I never met a superlative I didn’t like.  So if I say David Crowder Band is the greatest Christian rock band of all time, you’ll have to forgive me, it’s just in my nature.  But let’s look at the facts: David Crowder, along with Chris Tomlin (and just maybe the surging Phil Wickham), has written about 80% of the Christian worship staples of the past 10 years; their past four albums have reached the top of the Christian music charts; and they never won a Grammy, which is almost a guarantee of quality.  Regardless of whatever evidence I’m able to look up on the Internet (Wikipedia) and regardless of what I’ve left out, David Crowder Band as an entity has shaped Christian music for a decade.  They pretty much do whatever the heck they want, which explains the two double albums in their discography, including this 34-track, 100-minute opus that came out in January.  That may sound daunting, but no music could be more joyful or as easy to listen to.  There were albums that I loved more this year, but seeing as David Crowder Band is no more (they split after their tour to support this album), no discussion of the best albums of 2012 would be complete without Give Us Rest, not only one of the greatest records of the year, but one of the best of DCB’s career.  Best Song: “Let Me Feel You Shine”

japandroids4. Celebration Rock, Japandroids: What is this rock music you speak of?  You don’t hear much of it now.  It doesn’t get much better than Japandroids in this day and age, and not just because there’s not much quality rock music left in the world.  Their June album features songs that would feel at home with any of the classics, and yet they still feel of the moment, true punk music.  The problem with music nowadays is- well, one of the problems, at least, is that all the music seems to know that it’s trivial.  There’s nothing at stake in a Katy Perry song or most of Lady Gaga’s songs.  Taylor Swift’s newer songs don’t resonate, because the relationships are proving to be less and less important to her.  But Japandroids- shoot, lives hang in the balance of a breakup.  A meeting in the middle of the night has ramifications for years afterwards.  Cities have souls, and houses are made of living light.  This music is too good for the radio; this is rock and roll.  Best Song: “The House That Heaven Built”

brucespringsteen3. Wrecking Ball, Bruce Springsteen: The Boss has never made a bad album, but who makes one of his best records at the age of 63?  I’ll be lucky if I can even hear when I’m 63.  That’s one year removed from renting a cottage in the Isle of Wight, scrimping and saving, with grandchildren on my knee.  Springsteen doesn’t have to scrimp and save; he’s not only making music, putting out albums, but he’s fully expressing himself, as well as he ever did, same as it ever was, but he’s on fire for his nation, for his people in this album.  Regardless of which side of the political fence you come down on, Bruce Springsteen’s passion for the people resonates.  If you’ve ever read an interview with him, you can see an intelligent man; but that intelligence would mean nothing if he didn’t care.  Listening to a song like “Land of Hope and Dreams,” you see he cares.  You can hear the mercy in his voice.  We need more artists with a good grasp on that kind of mercy.  Best Song: “Land of Hope and Dreams”

lecraetriplee2. Gravity, Lecrae / The Good Life, Trip Lee: Yep, I’m cheating.  2 in 1. Who gon stop me, huh?  It’s really a testament to the quality of the music this year that I couldn’t choose between two Christian rap albums for the number 2 spot on my list.  Can we pause for a second and appreciate how far Christian rap has come?  Hip-hop of the evangelical persuasion has been around since the 1980s, but please listen to this song by Stephen Wiley from 1985 and join me in cringing.  No doubt the artists making songs like that were well-meaning, but Run-D.M.C. they were not.  Even an influential band in the 1990s like dc Talk wasn’t above making bad hip-hop.  It seems like the Christian hip-hop culture is finally catching up to mainstream rap in terms of artistic integrity.  Lecrae has been leading the way in this mission for some time now, but Christian rap has genuinely reached its peak with this pair of albums from the two best in the genre.  I can’t choose a favorite, honestly.  Lecrae is the more solid musically, and he’s the better rapper, but Trip’s album features more focused and specific songs, rather than Lecrae’s broad themes on his album, which gives Trip’s a more potent emotional punch.  Maybe given time, I’ll be able to parse out which one is better, but for not, I’m totally down for enjoying them as two delicious pieces from the same pie.  Best Songs: “Mayday (feat. Big K.R.I.T.)” / “One Sixteen (feat. KB & Andy Mineo)”

andrewpeterson1. Light for the Lost Boy, Andrew Peterson: I’m getting married in exactly 6 months and 11 days.  I graduate in less than 5 months.  I’m about to start applying for jobs.  It’s scary and sobering, but also stimulating and exciting.  I’m not going to pretend that there’s an automatic maturation that comes with these milestones.  I can’t claim maturity quite yet.  I also can’t describe my musical taste as mature yet either; maybe in a few years I’ll be able to look at my own preferences with a more objective eye, but not now.  I’m still too caught up in what others think of me.  But I can look back and notice change.  For instance, I used to be really into Snow Patrol, Coldplay, and Maroon 5.  I still like those bands (well, I like old Maroon 5 at least), but I would no longer point to their songs as my favorites, and I hardly listen to them anymore, though I own several of their CDs each.  I seek out very different music now.  I don’t know if that qualifies me as a fuddy-duddy yet, but I’m terrified that it does.

Nowadays, there are three artists that I would pay anything to see if they come to Norman or Oklahoma City or Dallas, or even Tulsa or Austin.  One of them came to Norman this fall, and I made the questionable (though, ultimately, the right) decision to forgo seeing her to accompany a group of my friends to see Lecrae and Trip Lee with a host of other great Christian rappers in Oklahoma City that same night.  That artist was Patty Griffin.  The other two I would shill out anything for are Bruce Springsteen and Andrew Peterson.  This willingness to put their art over my checkbook comes not from my perception of the quality of their live shows, but from a deep connection I feel with their music.  Maybe it’s because my taste in music has changed or, if you want, matured, but I’m drawn to their music because I’ve learned so much from each of them.

Andrew Peterson is the newest of my favorites.  I loved his last album from 2010, Counting Stars, and I’ve been making my way through his discography this past year.  But with the release of Light for the Lost Boy in August, my appreciation of Peterson has solidified.  His sound grew between Counting Stars and Lost Boy, but to me, it felt like it was growing with me.  Counting Stars is the album of someone with a reckless abandonment to God; Light for the Lost Boy is the album of someone who’s been beaten down and needs reassuring, restoration of his soul.  Peterson surveys his childhood to find hope for the future; he looks to the old man to better understand the new man he’s becoming in Christ.  I won’t claim that I’m mature yet.  But I can look to albums like Light for the Lost Boy as checkpoints for times of serious growth.  This is an album that will remain with me forever.  Best Songs: “The Cornerstone” “Day by Day” “Don’t You Want to Thank Someone”

Honorable Mentions: Fable, Benjamin Dunn & the Animal Orchestra; Weight & Glory, KB; good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kendrick Lamar; Shields, Grizzly Bear; Babel, Mumford & Sons

*Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, James Brown, and Sam Cooke don’t count, since those are their real names, give or take an added “e” here or there.

Thanks for following me through this list.  It’ll likely change in 9 months or so.  Don’t fret though, I’ll be sure to let you know when it happens. My friend, Scott Bedgood, posted his top 2 today too- here’s his blog!

Music Bummys 2012: Best Albums of 2011

[So now that we’re 9 months into the year 2012, now is a good time to look back at the best of 2011.  Why look back at 2011 when there’s only 3 months left in 2012, you ask?  Well, let me tell you, faithful reader (of which I’m positive there is only one- maybe two).  For one, we’re far enough removed from 2011 to get past all the hype over everything that came out last year; we can look back with clear eyes.  Also, we’re coming up on awards season for movies and music, so it’ll be nice to get this out of the way before all that nonsense begins.  And, most importantly, I’m not a paid critic, so there were gobs and gobs of movies and music I hadn’t consumed when Grammy and Oscar time came around at the beginning of 2012- at that point, I didn’t think I could give a qualified answer for what the best movies and music were last year.

But now I’ve listened to the majority of the albums (both big and small) that got notice last year and I’ve seen the majority of the notable movies (both indie and mainstream) from 2011, and I can now (somewhat) conclusively say that I’ve got a good handle on what I consider the best of both music and movies from last year.

The real question is, why am I going to all this trouble?  Any post on this blog I consider practice for when I truly write creatively, such as when I begin to write short stories or a book at some point in the future (a pipe dream, sure, but the blog does get my creative juices flowing, so it may be more realistic than you might think).  And, perhaps more importantly, I love movies and music, so I consider them worth writing about.  I believe one way God wants us to reflect His image in this world is to create, and I believe God uses movies and music to teach us and to stir our spirits and, yes, to entertain us.  Writing helps me process that better.]*

A week ago I listed out the best acting performances of 2011, then two days later I gave you the top songs of 2011.  This week I’ll give you the top albums and the top movies.

I made an egregious error last week: I left “1+1” by Beyoncé off my best songs list, or at least on my 2nd 10.  My bad, Bey.

Top Albums of 2011

10. Matt Papa, This Changes Everything: Matt Papa doesn’t rely on anything flashy to make his songs work.  All he offers is strong songwriting and unparalleled passion.  Thankfully he also brings courage to the table, elevating simple songs like “This Changes Everything” and “Stay Away from Jesus” into emotional declarations of faith.  The album is essentially a worship album that’s tired of all the other worship albums phoning it in.  Papa writes inspired arrangements that proclaim doctrine and exclaim God’s attributes, most notably in the “The Lord Is a Warrior (feat. Shai Linne)” and “The Glory of God”, which features a sample of a John Piper sermon.

9. Beyoncé, 4: I’ve listened to Beyoncé’s other albums, I’m not ashamed to admit, and they were fine, I guess, but they were really a smattering of great singles with mostly filler.  4 is her first album that is fully great, and it’s no coincidence that it’s her most creative.  It seems as if Mrs. Shawn Carter made the songs she wanted on this album and not the songs she thought her fans wanted.  Her big voice is still intact on this album, but it takes more risks, from the frenetic “Countdown” to the funky yet power-ballad “1+1”.  Her themes are more assured here, too- it’s refreshing to hear these songs and think that Jay-Z and Beyoncé are as in love as we ourselves want to be someday, if we aren’t already.  The love she declares in these songs comes off as truly classic, and while her husband released a fine duo record with Kanye in Watch the Throne, in 2011, Beyoncé came out (love) on top.

8. Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin’: Raphael Saadiq is a faster-paced, male Adele, bringing a classic soul/Motown sound to today’s audiences.  Unfortunately, Saadiq didn’t get the publicity that Adele did, though that admittedly makes me love him more.  Stone Rollin’ starts off strong with the great, rocking “Heart Attack”, with its timeless chorus and “Satisfaction”-recalling verses.  The album never looks back after that as Saadiq storms through songs with subject matter running the gamut from rising above sin (“Go to Hell”) to succumbing to it (the bluesy title song).  Saadiq ends with “The Answer”, a song with a social conscience Marvin Gaye would have been proud of, calling on the older generation to give their wisdom to the young ‘uns.  The young ‘uns would do well to look to Saadiq for how to rock- we could use some more musicians with his ability to bring the past into modern times.

7. Drake, Take Care: Some of my favorite albums are works that show the depths of their authors’ sin- not because I’m secretly pointing and laughing, or seeing myself as superior, but because I see myself in there somewhere, and I’m reminded of the depths I could sink to without grace.  Take Care is such an album.  The way Drake writes his songs, it seems as if he’s stuck in a pattern of behavior that he both detests and can’t live without.  “Marvin’s Room” is about his drunk dial of an old girlfriend, and the things he says to her are angry and heartbreaking.  “Headlines” has the title of a song about Drake’s fame, but it’s really about how he can’t even talk himself up anymore- he no longer believes his own hype.  In a lot of Drake’s songs, the real message is in the atmosphere; “Headlines” has such a sad-sounding chorus that you know he doesn’t believe what he’s saying.  The throughline of the album is that sadness, coming to a climax on “Take Care”, a duet with Rihanna about two depressed people who can’t let go of each other.  If I’ve made this sound terribly depressing, that’s because it is- but that doesn’t stop Drake from making it gorgeous.

6. Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues: There are breakup albums, and then there are albums that happen to be made in the middle of a breakup.  Helplessness Blues is the latter, and the circumstances allowed Foxes’ frontman Robin Pecknold to write his most personal songs yet.  Fleet Foxes’ self-titled debut was gorgeous and stately folk music with lyrics about wolves and cornucopias and strawberries in snow- so it wasn’t the most literal of albums.  Pecknold hasn’t totally left the abstract behind, but he gives us some real insight into himself on Helplessness.  In “Sim Sala Bim” he sings of the Earth shaking and breaking dreams, but he also asks “What makes you love me despite the reservations?”.  And on the title track, Pecknold expresses frustration with the idea that we’re all supposedly unique and that our futures are determined by the establishment.  All this personal stuff is framed by beautiful melodies and harmonies, culminating in the fantastic “Grown Ocean”, which rises in driving guitar and drums to hope for future fulfillment.  Maybe I’m just drawn to this album because it’s tailor-made for the scared but hopeful young adult about to face the world.  Or maybe Pecknold and Co. have tapped into fears and hopes that are more universal.

5. The War on Drugs, Slave Ambient: I’m a huge fan of folk and folk rock; I like a little twang in my singers’ voices, a little finger-pickin’ in the guitars.  There’s not too much variation there though, so when I came across The War on Drugs, they immediately stood out to me as a band pushing the limits of their genre.  Combining shoegaze, psychedelia, and Tom-Petty-folk rock, Slave Ambient (which, come to think of it, would have been the perfect name for the Drake album on this list too) jangles its way into a distinct sound.  The sound itself carries the feel of yearning mixed with disappointment, and indeed, many of their songs cover that ground.  But the rebel-yell “ooh-ooh” on “Come to the City” and the chugging guitar on “Black Water Falls” suggest hope, and it’s this mix of real feelings that raises The War on Drugs above novelty and into indie-folk greatness.

4. Bon Iver, Bon Iver: Justin Vernon may be kind of a jerk, but he’s made soft rock cool again, so he’s obviously a genius.  For Emma, Forever Ago in 2008 was basically a folk album; with their self-titled followup, Bon Iver got about as far away from folk as they could without settling into a distinct genre.  Like The War on Drugs, Justin Vernon played with what music allowed him to do, and he won.  From “Perth”’s opening snare drums to “Beth/Rest”’s sax solo, Bon Iver bends the music to their will, fashioning gorgeous melodies out of nowhere.  Indeed, there’s not much of a structure to their songs, but that means the more you come back to it, the more hooks you’re going to find.  If you pick just one song (I suggest “Holocene” or “Beth/Rest”) to listen to, you’ll find a million things to love, a million different ways Bon Iver got creative without straying from the theme of the song.  Some have called them boring, but that’s because they’re not really listening.

3. Over the Rhine, The Long Surrender: When you think of jazz singers, chances are you hear in your mind someone who sounds a lot like Over the Rhine’s Karin Bergquist: a little smoky, slightly seductive.  You’ve never heard a voice like hers set to songs like these though.  In a band with her longtime husband Linford Detweiler, Karin sings songs that are alternately jazz-tinged and folksy while he accompanies her on a piano that sounds vaguely like a carnival at times.  Some of their songs are about themselves and their stormy relationship, like “Infamous Love Song” and you get the feeling she’s including the two of them in “Only God Can Save Us Now”, but most of the album is about everyday people.  The album’s message is best summed up in “All My Favorite People”- “all my favorite people are broken / Believe me, my heart should know.”  Over the Rhine is a representative of the people, shining light on their foibles as well as their beauty.

2. Adele, 21: I tend to want to backlash against what everyone else likes, at least when it comes to music.  And I can’t pretend to be a hipster about this and claim to have liked Adele before everyone else did.  The only reason I listened to her was because I was reading so much hype about her.  But Adele managed to do what no one else nowadays can do: she dominated music for over an entire year.  21 outsold EVERYONE last year.  It has sold 23 million albums as of September.  That’s insane.  Obviously, that has nothing to do with album quality and everything to do with zeitgeist.  But it got my attention, and ever since listening to it early last year.  I’m convinced that 21 will be remembered not only as a classic, but as a supremely enjoyable and moving album.  There are plenty of hit albums that don’t register on an emotional level, but Adele’s voice is soulful and true, and every song connects.  21 is strong from front to back, it was the year’s biggest and (nearly) its best album, and you know what?  She was only 21 when she recorded it.  I have got to get started on that novel.

1. Gungor, Ghosts upon the Earth: Christian music is notorious for not putting out notably creative music.  That being said, I’d argue that Christian pop/rock music is at an all-time high and only getting better.  This isn’t to discredit the great Christian music that came out in the ‘90s, but there just wasn’t very much of it.  The artists are beginning to see the eternal value in creating, one crucial way that God intends for us to bear His image.  Gungor has taken this literally; they’ve created a work of art about our creation.  Ghosts upon the Earth begins at the beginning, singer Lisa Gungor crying, “Let there be light” in a beautiful crescendo.  The album flows from creation to “The Fall” of man through man’s rejection of God after God’s covenant (the emotional “Ezekiel”) to the resurrection (the jubilant “This Is Not the End”) and finally the day when we all praise God’s name in His perfect will (“You Are the Beauty” and “Every Breath”).  I don’t know if Ghosts was meant to be a concept album, but if there’s ever been an album that adequately expresses the mystery and joy of the Gospel (and “adequately” is all any human could ever do), Ghosts upon the Earth is it.

Another Ten (in alphabetic order)
Burlap to Cashmere: Burlap to Cashmere
Gary Clark Jr.: The Bright Lights EP
Jay-Z & Kanye West: Watch the Throne
Josh Garrels: Love & War & the Sea in Between
M83: Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
Miranda Lambert: Four the Record
Needtobreathe: The Reckoning
Switchfoot: Vice Verses
Tedashii: Blacklight
tUnE-yArDs: w h o k i l l

Top Albums of 2012 (So Far, and in alphabetic order)

Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball: A timely, rousing album that dominates the line between staying true to the Boss’s style and experimenting with other genres.  This is an album that feels born in the USA of today.

David Crowder Band, Give Us Rest or (A Requiem Mass in C [The Happiest of All Keys]): I don’t know that I’ll ever get tired of exploring this album.  Extraordinarily dense and long, but moving and exciting from end to end.  Crowder and Co. crafted a fitting end to their production career.

Japandroids, Celebration Rock: The title says it all.  There aren’t enough bands who make this kind of heart-on-sleeve music that don’t sound like some version of Creed.  Japandroids have restored my faith in rock music.

Trip Lee, The Good Life: Maybe the most triumphant album of the year so far.  No other Christian rap album has sounded this unique and classic at the same time.  I love the direction the 116 Clique is going, but so far, Lee has set himself apart from this rap pack.

The Vespers, The Fourth Wall: It’s a mystery to me why my ear has latched onto this album.  It’s a folk album, and it’s got the banjo, and it’s go the harmonies, so nothing new right?  But the girls’ voices are uncommonly beautiful, and it seems to me that with each song they go out of their way not to conform to the folk norm without getting too out there.  They’re doing their thing, and I love it.

Most Anticipated Albums of 2012 (The Rest of the Year, in alphabetic order)

Bat for Lashes, A Haunted Man: The last Bat for Lashes album was a gothic fantasy that quietly stole my heart.  I mean, she wrote a song about the Karate Kid, and it’s actually beautiful- that’s incredible.  I’m excited to see if Natasha Khan can bewitch me again this year.

Green Day, Uno!, Dos!: I feel like I’m in the minority among my friends when it comes to Green Day, but I love them.  I think American Idiot is an amazing album, and I’ll fight you if you tell me I’m wrong.  That said, I’m looking forward to hearing Green Day get back to their roots and not try to chase some concept down a rabbit hole (see: 21st Century Breakdown).

Gungor, A Creation Liturgy: Obviously I love Gungor’s music (see above), but this isn’t a new album; instead, it’s a live album recorded during their Ghosts upon the Earth Tour from this past spring.  I had the pleasure of seeing them live at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa twice in the past year.  They’re such a talented group, seeing them live isn’t at all like hearing their record.  Hopefully, this live recording will provide a different facet of their already-great songs.

Lupe Fiasco, Food & Liquor 2: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1: The Cool left me cold and I absolutely hated Lasers, but Food & Liquor is one of my favorite rap albums ever.  I’m really banking on the fact that F&L is back in the title- maybe that means Lupe’s back to his old ways, and if that’s the case, Food & Liquor 2 should be an insightful, empathetic look at real people and their problems, and not an overblown, overproduced diatribe.

Titus Andronicus, Local Business: Titus Andronicus isn’t necessarily easy to like, but their last album, The Monitor, was my favorite album of 2010.  They had a knack for expressing real emotion through big metaphors, kind of like Green Day, back in the day, come to think of it, though The Monitor was never as heavy-handed as even the best of Green Day’s songs.  My hope is that Local Business can convey as much pathos as The Monitor, but I’ll settle for half; that will still make it one of the best albums of the year.

*Reprinted from last Monday’s post.