Tentative Top Tens for 2015

Once the 2015 Bummys came along, there ended up being only four remaining movies from my Tentative Top Ten for 2014. For contrast, only one of my 2015 Bummy albums was different from my Tentative Top Ten for 2014.

So take these lists with a grain of salt- they’ll undoubtedly change by next September when the 2016 Bummys are broadcast (check your local listings!). That said, I loved everything in this post- every movie, album, series, and book would be worth your time.

I don’t read enough books or comics or watch enough TV to make full lists of those. But I included  one of each anyway.

FURY ROAD

Movies

1. Mad Max: Fury Road
2. Inside Out
3. Sicario
4. Ex Machina
5. Beasts of No Nation
6. Timbuktu
7. It Follows
8. Furious 7
9. About Elly
10. Avengers: Age of Ultron

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Albums

1. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
2. Alabama Shakes, Sounds & Color
3. Phil Cook, Southland Mission
4. Samantha Crain, Under Branch and Thorn and Tree
5. Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
6. The Tallest Man on Earth, Dark Bird Is Home
7. Jimmy Needham, Vice & Virtue
8. Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell
9. Gungor, One Wild Life: Soul
10. Ben Rector, Brand New

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Best Book I Read This Year

Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering by Tim Keller

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Best Comic Series I Read This Year

The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman

Best TV Series I Watched This Year

Hannibal

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One Wild Life: Soul (2015) by Gungor

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Back in 2011, my friends and I went to the great Cain’s Ballroom venue in Tulsa to experience David Crowder Band on their final tour. It was an incredible show; Crowder and his band seemed incapable of putting on anything but incredible shows. But equally as impressive was one of the bands that opened for them, Gungor, in support of their acclaimed Beautiful Things from 2010. Michael & Lisa Gungor’s band was reduced to maybe four or five members for that tour. I would see them with their full ensemble (again at Cain’s) after the release of their next album, Ghosts upon the Earth, but even stripped down they made memorable music. It seemed appropriate that they were on DCB’s last tour- the greatest Christian band was stepping down just as the next great Christian band was on the rise.

I haven’t seen them live since that second show, but I imagine it’s a different experience now. After Ghosts upon the Earth received praise in 2011, they changed directions for the next album. 2013’s I Am Mountain was far less concerned with traditional styles of worship music. As much as Ghosts upon the Earth experimented and expanded upon tradition, I Am Mountain was that much all over the place. They mixed and matched genres, combining baroque pop, bluegrass, indie rock, electronic, even embracing Auto-Tune on some songs, but these disparate sounds never cohered into one vision. The message seemed a little directionless as well, drifting from concrete biblical truths and exploring a more mystical side of our connections with God. This was all fine; I Am Mountain just seemed like the album of a band in transition, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There was still a lot of good music on Mountain, even if the album as a whole didn’t hold up with their first two.

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But 2014 was different. 2014 was the year the zeitgeist (well, the online Christian zeitgeist, which…yeah) turned against Gungor. Michael, in blog posts and interviews, began espousing controversial beliefs and doubts. For example, he posited that he was unable to believe in the great flood or a historical Adam and Eve. And he got LIT UP. It didn’t help that he and Lisa began associating and collaborating with public figures who came with controversies of their own. They began a group called The Liturgists, which included Rob Bell and Rachel Held Evans among its number, and many Christians, myself included, began to tear down the favored status we had previously bestowed on Gungor. There were some good, measured responses from sources like Relevant and Christ and Pop Culture, but there were also a lot of histrionics and a lot of clickbait.

Now it’s 2015, and Gungor is releasing an ambitious project called One Wild Life, which is a trilogy of albums spread out over a year. The first, One Wild Life: Soul, was released this month, and it’s breathtakingly good. Gone is the messiness of I Am Mountain. But they haven’t reverted back to traditional worship music by any stretch of the imagination. No, Soul is an introspective pop record. There are still experimental flourishes, but those have always been around on Gungor albums.

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The primary characteristic I’d assign to Soul is quietness. “Light” is a humble celebration of the Gungors’ daughter, born last year with Down syndrome. “Us for Them” seems like it should be a huge anthem, and it’s definitely an anthem, with “hey!”s and “ho!”s, but Gungor is holding back, teaching us to turn the other cheek. “We Are Stronger” is the kind of song that would have crescendoed into a chorus of ohhhhhs before, like “The Earth Is Yours” on Beautiful Things. But the climax on “We Are Stronger” is a subdued Michael chanting about all the lives that matter: black, female, soldiers, the unborn, homosexuals, fundamentalists. It’s a sober reminder of the mob-like hate that marginalizes all kinds of people- including, last year, the Gungors.

Full disclosure: I didn’t expect to like One Wild Life: Soul. I was turned off by the moves the Gungors made last year. I was upset at the company they kept. I wanted them to hold to my understanding of biblical doctrine and conform to my understanding of what the Christian life should look like. But the Internet has a way of exposing the sinfulness in our immediate reactions, and, in hindsight, the Gungors never said anything that contradicted the basic tenets of faith in Christ outright.

I imagine if I sat down for dinner with them, we would disagree on some things. But when you listen to the lyrics on One Wild Life: Soul and you expect controversy, you realize that every song is…right. These songs are about many things- their daughter, savoring life, respecting others- but the majority of them point to Christ and His glory. The final song, “Vapor”, is a gorgeous meditation on the indescribable, unfathomable nature of God. They released it last year as The Liturgists, and I dismissed it because of its association with that group. Listening to it now, with the benefit of time’s humility, it confirms this for me: Gungor is still the best.

Best Music of 2015 So Far

Welp, it’s 2015 and Taylor Swift is still dominating music. As much as rap tends to dominate the airwaves, it’s earnest pop music like Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, and Sam Smith that continues to have staying power in album sales. Swift has been in the Billboard Top 10 for 35 straight weeks, and it appears she’s averaged out at position #2 for that whole time, so we might as well call it a year. She’s reaching 2011-2013 Adele levels of world domination, though Adele was in the top 10 for a total of 80 straight weeks, so T-Swift’s still got a long ways to go. But considering she’s still in the top 5 after 9 months, we might as well call it a year. Pack it in, music industry. Taylor’s won. The next five albums may as well function as my Top 5 for the whole year. Seeya in 2016, pop music. Bye.

Albums

bestsofar01Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color: Alabama Shakes’s Boys & Girls was a perfect slice of a beach party, mixing the pathos of the blues with the chill of surf rock. Sound & Color is what happens when the bonfire gets out of control. Even if rock as we knew it is basically dead, on Sound & Color Alabama Shakes have delivered an explosion of the genre at its best.

bestsofar02Jimmy Needham, Vice & VirtueBefore this year, you’d be forgiven for thinking Jimmy Needham was soft. Speak, his bitingly blunt debut album, was released way back in 2006, so it was easy to forget how lovingly rebuking his songs could be. After the funky Vice, you won’t mistake him for anything but hardened by the ravages of sin and emboldened by the mercy of the empty tomb.

bestsofar03Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly: With great expectations comes great responsibility, and Kendrick has more than lived up to his end. Expectations were sky high after the cinematic good kidButterfly rocketed past them as very personal and yet somehow universal.

bestsofar04Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & LowellWe’re fifteen years into Sufjan’s career, ten years removed from Illinois, and five from Age of Adz. We’ve gotten scads of Christmas EPs and a symphonic meditation on a highway. And Carrie & Lowell is the first time I feel like I’ve seen the real Sufjan.

bestsofar05The Tallest Man on Earth, Dark Bird Is HomeMaking changes to one’s sound is always risky, and the breakup album seems like the most volatile time to make an attempt. But that’s exactly the hill Kristian Matsson determined to climb with Dark Bird. He expanded his sound from provincial folk to play around the edges of synth-rock, all in the name of purging his demons.

Songs

Fetty Wap, “Trap Queen”: That Furious 7 song will probably earn “Song of the Summer” honors at the end of August, but as far as I’m concerned, “Trap Queen” is the Song of the Spring, Summer, Winter and Fall.

Kendrick Lamar, “i [Album Version]”: The version of “i” that Kendrick Lamar was great enough, but the song that appears on the album sounds like a cherished bootleg copy with an added verse that functions as the epiphany of the whole brilliant record.

Sufjan Stevens, “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”: Sufjan has penned beautiful acoustic folk songs before, but none have ever had the emotional power of this single about dealing with his mother’s death.

The Tallest Man on Earth, “Sagres”: The warmest song Matsson has released to date; it’s also his most vulnerable, as he ponders whether hope is really worth it.

The Weather Station, “Way It Is, Way It Could Be”: A simple song, to be sure, but it’s haunted me more than any other this year.

Most Anticipated Albums of (the rest of) 2015

Gungor, One Wild Life: Soul (8/7): The eclectic band is releasing three new albums soon, the first of which is One Wild Life: Soul and is hopefully going to move in a more solid direction after 2013’s scattered I Am Mountain.

Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free (7/17): This will be the best songwriter in alt-country’s second album as a sober man, and arrives in anticipation of his first child with wife Amanda Shires, who will appear on the album.

Joan Shelley, Over and Even (9/4): If Isbell is alt-country’s best songwriter, Shelley might just  be alt-folk’s.

Sara Groves, Floodplain (9/11): Groves has never released an album I haven’t loved, and I don’t expect Floodplain to break that streak.

Titus Andronicus, The Most Lamentable Tragedy (7/31): This will definitely be the best five-act rock opera of the year.

Retro Bummys: Best Albums of 2010

The reason for this 2010 Bummys season is simple: I hadn’t done one yet. Every year since I started college I had done a Top 10 movies and albums, starting with Facebook notes and transitioning to WordPress in 2012. Yet, somehow, some way, I skipped 2010. Honestly, I felt bad. One of the best years for music in recent memory, and I totally ignored all of 2010’s texts, tweets, and Facebook messages. It probably had something to do with 2010 being a terrible year for movies. Oh well.

Anyway, I needed to make amends. The Best Albums Bummys were the hardest; I count so many albums from 2010 in my favorites. The fact that Big Boi, Broken Social Scene, Jars of Clay, Jimmy Needham, Local Natives, and Vampire Weekend were all left out of the Top Ten was a complete shock to me. But 2010 killed in the album department. Terrible year for movies. Wonderful year for music.

Links in the albums’ titles are to streaming services, mostly Spotify.

Top Ten

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10. The Wild Hunt by The Tallest Man on Earth: Few albums elicit as much joy from me as The Wild Hunt. This Swedish folk troubadour has such a love for the effects of simple music. It showed on his break-through album in his unforgettable yelp and his first-rate finger-pickin’.

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9. High Violet by The National: And so began the rock critics’ switching of allegiances from dad-rock to sad-rock, two terms that completely devalued what The National did on High Violet. It was easy to overlook the balance they struck between self-serious and self-deprecating, since the music sounded so serious. But High Violet is full of insightful commentary on middle-age life with its own brand of humor.

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8. The Guitar Song by Jamey Johnson: If you don’t like county, you probably wouldn’t have liked The Guitar Song, because this was a lot of country. The Guitar Song was 2 discs and 25 tracks of hard-boiled, deep-fried country music. Jamey Johnson always made country music for his fans and not for the radio, so his songs were actually about real life- hence, songs with titles like “Can’t Cash My Checks”, “Heaven Bound”, and “California Riots”.

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7. Astro Coast by Surfer Blood: It’s impossible to talk about Surfer Blood now without mention of their frontman’s accusations of domestic violence. The story was appalling and has colored all the music they’ve made since. But this album of perfectly calibrated pop rock can’t be sullied; I have too many fond memories of marveling over the riffs and clever lyrics.

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6. Beautiful Things by Gungor: Gungor rose into prominence around the time that David Crowder Band was struggling for a new direction to take worship music after having cemented themselves in the genre’s firm foundation. DCB had a knack for melody unparalleled until Gungor, whose songwriting abilities were matched by their willingness to push the instrumentation into the outer limits of the genre’s reach. They pushed farther on their next record, but Beautiful Things was when it became clear they were providing new ways to worship God.

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5. Counting Stars by Andrew Peterson: This was music at its simplest but most powerful. Peterson was content to remain within a certain stylistic framework, and he milked it for all its potential elegance. He didn’t reach as far as he would two years later on Light for the Lost Boy, but he hints at it on “The Reckoning” and “You Came So Close”, filling out maybe the most beautiful album of the year. He received a lot of attention for the album from Christian publications, but somehow he remains underrated. For me, Counting Stars made Andrew Peterson one of my top three favorite musicians.

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4. Brothers by The Black Keys: The Black Keys have gotten so good at what they do, their last few records have almost sounded bored. That wasn’t a problem with Brothers. Brothers was the sound of master surfers riding the biggest wave of their lives without ever wiping out. Their professionalism was matched only by their populism, filling their best album with hook after brilliant hook. Even more impressive, they were able to equally modulate their prowess across speeds, from the slow “Everlasting Light” to the speedy singles “Tighten Up” and “Howlin’ for You”.

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3. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West: Well, at least he was self-aware. And I use the term loosely, since VMA-gate seemed to belie a complete lack of self-awareness. At the very least, he’s self-aware enough to know that he’s dark and twisted and egotistical enough to assume that his fantasies are beautiful. But all three adjectives are appropriate- this is a dark and twisted album, full of confessionals that would make an NFL player blush. And it’s also beautiful, full of the kind of music even geniuses only get one chance in their lifetime to make.

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2. The Suburbs by Arcade Fire: Arcade Fire are a huge band, both in numbers and in ambition. Even a throwaway song like “Empty Room” was wall-to-wall sound. Arcade Fire had already waged war on the suburbs before in both Funeral and Neon Bible, so naming their third album The Suburbs may have seemed redundant, but it actually functioned more as a purging. On The Suburbs, Butler and his band poured out all the pain of growing older and coming of age in emotionless environments. It’s no wonder Reflektor sounds looser and freer; they buried all their demons on The Suburbs.

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1. The Monitor by Titus Andronicus: The pinnacle of emo and the peak of pop-punk, even though Titus Andronicus would probably deny those labels while pissing in your face. In 2010, when I was facing life after undergrad, these songs became my anthems- internal anthems, since I wouldn’t advise singing these out loud on the bus or anywhere else public. The profanity alone would get you thrown out of restaurants, not to mention the anxious existentialism that would depress everyone around you. A concept album that framed a young man’s migration from Jersey to Boston loosely within Civil War imagery, The Monitor managed to be both full of fun and totally angsty at the same time. With my graduation from OU pending, The Monitor provided me with a rock opera worth rolling my windows down and belting, as if I didn’t have to care about anything.

Another Fifteen (alphabetical by artist)

Into the Morning by Ben Rector: His style will never garner much critical attention, but to those of us who have submitted to his easy-going affect, Ben Rector means nothing less than bliss, and this was his most blissful album.

Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty by Big Boi: Big Boi showed off why he was every much Andre’s equal when it comes to his flow and that he was nearly as off-the-wall with his production choices.

Forgiveness Rock Record by Broken Social Scene: Criminally overlooked that year, Broken Social Scene were known for their status as a collective of indie rock minds, and the variety on Forgiveness Rock Record is a testament to that- it could have been messy, but the range comes off more generous than anything else.

Thank Me Later by Drake: I’d forgotten how many hit-worthy songs were on this album, but it makes sense, since Thank Me Later was far more commercially inclined than Drake’s next two releases, proving that he could do mainstream rap as well as or better than anyone.

American Slang by The Gaslight Anthem: Not as appealingly hangdog as their first album, The ’59 Sound, but its more polished sheen didn’t take away from the sense that the band was still telling real stories.

One Life Stand by Hot Chip: Electronic nerd-pop shouldn’t be my thing, but this record totally was.

The ArchAndroid by Janelle Monáe: R&B has become one of my favorite genres, which I think you can trace back to this album. It opened my eyes to the lack of limits within the style.

The Shelter by Jars of Clay: Albums based around high-profile collaborations are usually boring, low-risk affairs, but The Shelter was a joyous, highly-listenable affair. Jars of Clay kept up their streak of defying expectations.

Nightlights by Jimmy Needham: I prefer Needham’s earlier, more stripped-down records, but Nightlights is chock-full of songs that should have been hits on Christian radio, if we lived in a world without the Fall.

This Is Happening by LCD Soundsystem: More inscrutable than their universally-beloved Sound of SilverThis Is Happening was nevertheless a worthy final statement for the great electronic band.

Gorilla Manor by Local Natives: Before Gorilla Manor, indie rock was just a genre that sounded cool, but Local Natives’ debut included a lot of songs that touched a nerve in my 21-year-old self.

Body Talk by Robyn: Robyn’s brand of robo-pop has been severely missed since she rocked the known world with Body Talk.

The Age of Adz by Sufjan Stevens: Sufjan was never a normal dude, but he went all in on weirdo with Age of Adz, nevertheless making beautiful, meaningful songs with everything and the kitchen sink.

Contra by Vampire Weekend: So far, Vampire Weekend still hasn’t eclipsed the sunny blast of indie-pop from their self-titled debut, but Contra got real close.

Gemini by Wild Nothing: Wild Nothing’s Gemini had a blazed-out nostalgia to it that hooked me and continues to stir up wistful emotions even today.

Future Top Tens

2013

Jason Isbell: Southeastern
Beyoncé: Beyoncé
Laura Marling: Once I Was an Eagle
Patty Griffin: American Kid
Sandra McCracken: Desire Like Dynamite
Justin Timberlake: The 20/20 Experience
Beautiful Eulogy: Instruments of Mercy
Kanye West: Yeezus
KaiL Baxley: Heatstroke / The Wind and the War

2012

Andrew Peterson: Light for the Lost Boy
Lecrae: Gravity
Frank Ocean: channel ORANGE
Japandroids: Celebration Rock
David Crowder*Band: Give Us Rest or (A Requiem Mass in C [The Happiest of All Keys])
Bruce Springsteen: Wrecking Ball
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
The Olive Tree: Our Desert Ways
Benjamin Dunn & the Animal Orchestra: Fable
Kendrick Lamar: good kid, m.A.A.d. city

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

Retro Bummys: Best Songs of 2010

2010 was a formative year in music for me. I was enduring the after-effects of a breakup, entering my senior year, and traveling to Italy that summer, all while discovering what kinds of music I really liked. You can tell from this list that my musical taste wasn’t as diversified as it is now (45 different artists from last year’s top 50 songs, versus 36 from 2010). I held tightly to the bands I loved and the albums that defined my life that year.

Links to audio streaming or videos are in the song titles.

[Disclaimer: There’s probably profanity in a lot of these songs.]

Another Twenty-Five

50. “Beautiful Things” by Gungor
49. “To Old Friends and New” by Titus Andronicus
48. “Confirmation” by Wild Nothing
47. “Desire Lines” by Deerhunter
46. “On Melancholy Hill” by Gorillaz
45. “The Hangover (feat. Mikey Rocks)” by Curren$y
44. “White Dress” by Ben Rector
43. “Sun Hands” by Local Natives
42. “A More Perfect Union” by Titus Andronicus
41. “In the Night My Hope Lives On” by Andrew Peterson
40. “All Day Day Light” by The Morning Benders
39. “Light of Day” by Jimmy Needham
38. “Dancing on My Own” by Robyn
37. “Twin Peaks” by Surfer Blood
36. “Dry Bones” by Gungor
35. “Giving Up the Gun” by Vampire Weekend
34. “What’s My Name? (feat. Drake)” by Rihanna
33. “Small Rebellions (feat. Brandon Heath)” by Jars of Clay
32. “Feel It All Around” by Washed Out
31. “Hang with Me” by Robyn
30. “National Anthem (F**k the World)” by Freddie Gibbs
29. “Super Bass” by Nicki Minaj
28. “All Creatures of Our God and King” by Patty Griffin
27. “When I’m with You” by Best Coast
26. “Shine Blockas (feat. Gucci Mane)” by Big Boi

Top 25 Songs

25. “The Reckoning (How Long)” by Andrew Peterson: The veteran singer-songwriter’s most triumphant ode to the tension between this life and the next.

24. “Howlin’ for You” by The Black Keys: Nothing about this song was complicated, or even lyrically coherent, and thank goodness for that- we need mindless anthems in this crazy world.

23. “City with No Children” by Arcade Fire: Win Butler lamented the abundance of hypocrites in his world, as well as the possibility that he may have been among them.

22. “Hurricane J” by The Hold Steady: Heaven Is Whenever was dismissed, and this song along with it, even though it was a prime example of the dizzying heights this band was capable of even when embracing more mainstream rock templates.

21. “Macon” by Jamey Johnson: Combining Johnson’s Alabama drawl with Muscle-Shoals-channeling backup singers turned out to be a pretty great move for the alt-country bigshot.

20. “I Can Change” by LCD Soundsystem: For all the attention LCD Soundsystem got for their production, it was the calisthenics from James Murphy’s voice that usually elevated their songs into emotional nirvana, especially on this dynamic single off their last album.

19. “Heaven’s on Fire” by The Radio Dept.: I used to think the pretentious Thurston Moore quote that opened this song served as its thesis statement, but, listening now, the rest of the song seems to laugh it off by dropping some acid out back of the restaurant on its break. Turns out the youths don’t care one way or the other about the “bogus capitalist process”.

18. “Moving to Zion” by Jimmy Needham: I’ll follow Needham’s golden voice anywhere, but he made it easy with this funky declaration of intent to make his home in Christ.

17. “The Suburbs” by Arcade Fire: As clear a mission statement as you would have found on an album, “The Suburbs”, which opened the album of the same name, set up Arcade Fire’s Grammy-winning record as an epic, band-defining lament.

16. “Un-Thinkable (I’m Ready)” by Alicia Keys: The spiritual cousin to Usher’s “Climax”. Keys’s voice sounds like butter spread over just the right amount of bread.

15. “King of Spain” by The Tallest Man on Earth: After listening to this Swedish folk song, who didn’t think they could be anything they wanted?

14. “Who Knows Who Cares” by Local Natives: When I discovered this song in 2010, I was in a big period of transition, and Local Natives’ cinematic embrace of aimlessness hit me right where I lived.

13. “Tightrope (feat. Big Boi)” by Janelle Monáe: Even four years later, this song feels like the future of R&B.

12. “F**k You” by Cee-Lo Green: There’s no denying its vulgarity, but the explicit version is the better, funnier song than the comparably toothless “Forget You” (Ain’t that some shit?).

11. “Four Score and Seven” by Titus Andronicus: An appropriate microcosm for the brilliance of Titus Andronicus’s entire record, The Monitor, with a slow, elegiac first act followed by a rip-roaring second, repeating, “It’s still us against them!” which might as well be the band’s motto.

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10. “Swim” by Surfer Blood: Guitar-driven power-pop has fallen out of style since Surfer Blood’s bruising debut. Maybe that’s because no one’s written anything with quite the killer hook as “Swim” and its unbeatable chorus.  Effortless optimism is a tough vibe to pull off in indie rock, but Surfer Blood nailed it with “Swim”.

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9. “Bloodbuzz Ohio” by The National: I couldn’t tell you what some of the specific things in this song mean- like, what’s a “bloodbuzz”? Or why were bees carrying Matt Berninger to the Midwest? But I could certainly tell you that the malaise that permeates every inch of this song deeply affected me in 2010 even at the ripe old age of 21.

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8. “Power” by Kanye West: Remember when people said ‘Ye was just a great producer and not a great rapper? Well, he’d already proven his flow before “Power”, but “Power” was the moment his acumen became undeniable, his lyrical prowess proved to be unbeatable, and his one-liners were unstoppable. West’s assertion that “no one man should have all that power” was obviously self-referential, but in hindsight maybe that chorus was a cry for help from a man who couldn’t handle his own genius.

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7. “The Earth Is Yours” by Gungor: In light of Gungor’s recent bend toward the emergent church, it’s refreshing to look back on their explicitly worshipful music from Beautiful Things. “The Earth Is Yours” particularly stood out, because it’s an experimental rock song in a conventional worship song’s skin. Where David Crowder Band had already sharpened the edges of worship music’s box, Gungor had just begun to tip the box over and pour its contents out.

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6. “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” by Arcade Fire: Most of my other favorite Arcade Fire songs are the big, brash rock songs: “Wake Up”, “No Cars Go”, “Keep the Car Running”. But “Sprawl II” is more subtle, taking its time through its chorus, allowing The Suburbs to reach its emotional climax through Régine’s voice rather than Win’s. It doesn’t leave much room for hope in the tightness of its production, but Régine’s pleading for darkness wins me over every time.

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5. “World Sick” by Broken Social Scene: Apparently everyone forgot about Broken Social Scene once Leslie Feist left, but they quietly released one of the best records of 2010, leading off with one of the best songs of 2010. “World Sick” was epic, both in length and depth. It was almost seven minutes long, but it earned that running time with several well-constructed musical movements and a chorus that sounded like a legitimate cry for help. Kevin Drew claiming that he gets “world sick” whenever he takes a stand was a poignant way of pointing out that something wasn’t quite right with a world where hearts are broken every day. The angry guitar flurries that back him up on that line seemed to agree, and the song ended in skittering drums and whispering guitars, allowing its sentiment to sink in.

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4. “Runaway (feat. Pusha T)” by Kanye West: The song that ends up standing for West’s legacy better than any other doesn’t seem like it should include more of Kanye’s singing than his rapping, but this was the world we lived in back in 2010. Look, there were a lot of reasons to hate this song: ‘Ye’s singing voice, its blatant vulgarity, West’s apparent lack of repentance. But it would be hard to argue that “Runaway” wasn’t the perfect summation of the entire Kanye West ethos. For a man who elevated his career to the next level by being unflinchingly honest, “Runaway” was the pinnacle. That doesn’t give him a free pass for all his faults, but it’s worth at least something that he was able to confess them so effectively.

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3. “Dance with Me Baby” by Ben Rector: It’s telling that Ben Rector’s best song was also his least produced. Of course, I’m biased- I sang this song to my wife when I proposed to her. But I legitimately think this was a perfect song apart from my connection to it. From the opening, off-the-cuff piano chord to the sparse arrangement to the warm lyrics, Rector had never been better. He’ll never get attention from the mainstream media, but with “Dance with Me Baby” he showed he didn’t need it; he was going to make great music regardless.

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2. “Take It In” by Hot Chip: You know those movie images of heaven with billowing clouds and angelic sunlight streaming through? That’s what I feel like when I listen to this song. Hot Chip are just a bunch of nerdy guys, but they found a way to make the simplest of sentiments hold so much more weight. The verses were dark, bouncy affairs, conveying insecurity and uncertainty. Then the choruses kicked in, and we were sailing in the sky, eternally secure in the arms of love.

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1. “Dancing in the Minefields” by Andrew Peterson: Again, I’m biased: I sang this to my wife at our wedding. 2010 was a good year for songs that had to do with my marriage (No. 39 up there was the song playing when Vicky walked down the aisle). The DJ at our wedding helped me plan out when I was going to sing during the reception  as a surprise for Vicky. I ran into him at an event at OU a month or so after our wedding. He still had the song in his computer, so he played it for me randomly. It all came rushing back to me- not necessarily the romance of the event or the great dance party our DJ threw for us at the reception or even the moment when I got to kiss my bride for the first time. What I was reminded of was the heaviness of the promise I had made to my bride, to love her well for the rest of our life together. I knew I’d inevitably fail at carrying this out, that I would eventually turn out to be a bad husband. But that’s why I chose this song to sing: it’s a reminder that the promise is the thing that matters. God created marriage not as a testament to the power of romantic love to carry you through all things, but as an image of covenant, an image of His commitment to us. Is there any song that communicates that more fully than “Dancing in the Minefields”?

Future Top Tens

2013

“Go Wherever You Wanna Go” by Patty Griffin
“Latch (feat. Sam Smith)” by Disclosure
“Elephant” by Jason Isbell
“I Blame Myself” by Sky Ferreira
“Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)” by Oscar Isaac & Marcus Mumford
“The Bad Days” by David Ramirez
“Hold On, We’re Going Home (feat. Majid Jordan)” by Drake
“Mirrors” by Justin Timberlake
“Rocket” by Beyoncé
“The Sea & the Shore (feat. John Fullbright)” by Amy Speace

2012

“Clear the Stage” by Jimmy Needham
“One Sixteen (feat. KB & Andy Mineo)” by Trip Lee
“Fire of Time” by David Ramirez
“Church Clothes” by Lecrae
“Climax” by Usher
“Day by Day” by Andrew Peterson
“When We Were Young” by Benjamin Dunn & the Animal Orchestra
“Bad Religion” by Frank Ocean
“Mourning Train to Memphis” by Christopher Paul Stelling
“Hold On” by Alabama Shakes

2011

“Someone Like You” by Adele
“Need You Now” by Cut Copy
“You Are the Beauty” by Gungor
“Helplessness Blues” by Fleet Foxes
“Oklahoma Sky” by Miranda Lambert
“Otis” by Jay-Z & Kanye West
“This Changes Everything” by Matt Papa
“Days Like This” by Over the Rhine
“Bright Lights” by Gary Clark Jr.
“Beth/Rest” by Bon Iver

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

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.